March 28, 1994 12:00 PM

Shirley MacLaine, Nicolas Cage

Call this gentle comedy In the Line of he. Clint Eastwood’s Secret Service agent may have voluntarily stepped into the path of a bullet meant for the President in the thriller In the Line of Fire, but all Cage, playing an agent assigned to guard a tyrannical former First Lady (MacLaine), wants to do is stay clear of the dragon lady’s wrath.

Tess, taking its own leisurely time and with not much else on its mind, concentrates on exploring the changing relationship between Cage, a by-the-book guy, and the more mercurial MacLaine, who regards Secret Service agents as her personal waiters and golf caddies. The two start off as antagonists but come to respect and even love each other, albeit platonically.

MacLaine, playing less broadly here than she has in some recent appearances, is a tart treat, and Cage, all hard-fought restraint and slow burn, matches her. Director Hugh Wilson, who cowrote the screenplay with Peter Torokvei, allows the movie to take a wild swerve three-quarters of the way through, by means of a startling plot development. Still, he has made the sort of agreeable little movie that you wish Hollywood would take a chance on more often. (PG-13)

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