#39 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
This feels like another effort to create an American James Bond, this time from director and star Clint Eastwood, and I think he fumbles it. Eastwood’s cool directing style seems ill-fitted for an international espionage thriller, especially when he prefers to keep a languid pace throughout the second act. There doesn’t seem to be a huge effort to actually build tension or mystery, and he seems to treat the whole thing like a drama leading up to a large production effort to film an actual climb up an actual mountain. By the time that comes around, interest has waned to the point that all there remains is the physical production itself. Impressively staged but uninvolving, the final resolution ends up feeling wane rather than morally complex or thrilling.
Dr. Jonathan Hemlock (Eastwood) is an art professor with a suspiciously large collection of original masterpieces from the likes of Pissarro and Matisse, who built it by being an assassin for a secret government agency called C2, run by the mysterious albino named Dragon (Thayer David). Brought to the C2 offices by the agent Pope (Gregory Walcott), Hemlock learns of the need to go after two men who killed a C2 agent in Zurich. With a couple of well-placed threats, Dragon convinces Hemlock to take the job despite his retired status (it’s very convenient for him that this all happens right as the school semester ends, huh?). The entire first act is the setup and Hemlock’s executing the sanction on the first of the two men. The lackadaisical nature of how this all plays out isn’t the sort of thing that happens in thrillers, and the late introduction of key information, at the end of the third act, that gives Hemlock extra motivation to go after the second man, unknown at the time, feels like the kind of thing to actually get him involved in the first place. A more streamlined screenplay might have done this. I wasn’t against the movie at this point, but I was feeling a bit wary.
The second man, Dragon informs Hemlock, will be part of an international team climbing the Eiger mountain in the Swiss Alps. It is unknown which member of the team, whether the German, Swiss, or French member, is the killer, but it is one. So, does Hemlock go to Switzerland to join the team and start his investigation? Nope. He goes to Monument Valley (Clint Eastwood directing his first film in the John Ford locale while not actually making a Western is an irony I noted) and meets with an old climbing partner, Ben (George Kennedy), who runs a small resort now. Ben is going to get Hemlock into shape, the movie spends the entire second act here. There simply isn’t enough story to support it, so the film introduces a couple of extra elements like the man who left Hemlock for dead years back, Miles (Jack Cassidy), who becomes a weird little antagonist for the middle of the film, and Ben’s daughter George (Brenda Venus) who never says a word, puts Hemlock through extended running hikes, disrobes at times for encouragement, and then decides to sleep with Hemlock. Women just can’t get enough of Clint, it seems.
It was this second act that steadily drained any enthusiasm of the film as a whole. It’s light and amusing, for sure, but the central story is so completely forgotten, replaced by the conflict between Hemlock and Miles (that gets completely resolved in a car chase through the Valley at the end of the second act), that I just stopped caring about everything.
And then, to make matters worse, once in Switzerland, we get information that undermines the whole mystery anyway. It’s actually pretty unclear what the whole secret plot behind everything was. It was a setup of some kind with the opening MacGuffin not meaning anything, but after the second act that completely lost track of the story, learning that the actual story isn’t important was just the killer. I didn’t care anymore.
And then the climb starts, and, you know what? It’s kind of great. I just wish it wasn’t 90 minutes into a movie that didn’t care at all about its own story. It’s the advantage of going out to really film things, and it’s really effective. The snow and wind is frightening while Hemlock has to deal with deaths on the climb while Ben watches from the ground.
There’s a resolution and a final twist of who the real killer is based on a limp, and there seems to be an effort to bring moral complexity to the work of an assassin. The storytelling is so convoluted and unfocused that the question popping up in the final moments is pretty much laughable. It is based on a character-based relationship that was well-established, but the question of who’s the real killer had been ignored and undermined so much that I can’t imagine anyone really caring anymore by that point.
That being said, the real strengths of this film are in the characters. Hemlock may be a shade away from a walking joke with his background as art professor, expert climber, and world-renowned assassin, but Eastwood understands how to direct himself. It’s not a great performance of complexity, but he holds up the movie as well as he can. George Kennedy as Dan seems to largely just play himself, but with Eastwood, the two have a great camaraderie. Jack Cassidy as Miles brings an amusing affect while holding his own in his scenes against Eastwood. Vonetta McGee as the C2 agent Jemima Brown has a great rapport with Hemlock, though she ends up feeling more like an effort to create this film’s own version of Moneypenny while providing little in terms of impact on the story. Her big thing is bringing Hemlock back after the first sanction, and the storytelling is so unclear and feels so unnecessary that it undermines her presence in the film as a whole.
Without the misdirected adventure in the second act, I might have been more okay with this film. Cut out Miles, and there would have been enough focus to make the effort at espionage thriller a bit uninvolving but functional. Eastwood doesn’t bring the sense of tension that the film really needs, getting lost in Monument Valley while losing focus of the actual plot.