#32 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
Clint Eastwood seemed very self-aware of his image, and The Gauntlet feels like an attempt to subvert the image he had cultivated through the Dirty Harry series of films, which he thought was over after The Enforcer. Warner Brothers would come to him a few years later carrying a very large bag of money to change his mind about that. However, before then, Eastwood made a film about a cop, not the best cop but one of the worse ones. An unremarkable and alcoholic metro cop from Phoenix who gets caught up in a grand adventure through the desert. It’s more interesting as a reaction to Harry Callahan than as an actual movie, though. The actual movie is just kind of not that good.
Ben Shockley (Eastwood) rolls into the department one day with orders to meet the new commissioner, Blakelock (William Prince). Unshaven and with whiskey on his breath (the bottle of which he accidentally dropped onto the ground getting out of his car), he’s surprised to find not a reprimand but an order to go to Las Vegas and pick up a witness for a case. His friend Josephson (Pat Hingle) wishes him well, and Shockley is off to Nevada. He quickly finds out that Gus is not a man but a woman, Augustina Mally (Sondra Locke), and Mally does not want to leave. She knows that there’s a hit out on her, and this being Vegas, they’re even running odds on it (50 to 1 when Shockley finds out, quickly rising to 60 to 1). Well, something’s obviously wrong, and when his first effort at deception blows up in his face, he calls back to home base to Blakelock for help. Moments later, Vegas police surround Mally’s house with a lot of guns drawn.
One of the drags on this film is that Shockley is kind of stupid. After that, one would imagine that distrust of Blakelock would come naturally, but it simply doesn’t come to him. Getting away, he calls Blakelock again to arrange a meet at the Arizona border. It takes Mally pointing it out for Shockley to realize that he’s made a mistake. This all happens after Shockley hijacks a Vegas sheriff’s car, and we get an extended rhetorical battle between Mally and the constable (Bill McKinney) that compares the work of a prostitute with the work of a crooked cop, the crooked cop coming off more poorly in the conversation.
Shockley ends up getting saved in a couple of different instances through sheer plot armor, especially when, caught in the middle of the desert, a large group of bikers comes upon their location and Shockley talks them into leaving with only a single gun and no obvious backup nearby. He uses the situation to steal one of the bikes, and it’s meant to demonstrate Shockley’s ability to get himself out of any pickle. However, the odds are so against him and the explanation so odd that it doesn’t feel right.
The meat of what’s going on as the film progresses is a meet-cute romance. They start by yelling. They gain a semi-secret appreciation of each other’s qualities, and they soften towards each other until they fall in love. Is it good stuff? It’s perfectly competent stuff, at least. How Mally holds her own against the constable obviously impresses Shockley. How Shockley is willing to defend her against some wayward bikers impresses her in turn. His hangdog dedication to a profession that has never paid him dividends makes him the kind of lovable loser she falls for, it seems.
The narrative mechanics of how everything goes in between the requisite romantic scenes and the action beats never quite make a whole lot of sense. There’s the biker standoff, and the whole concept of needing to send an Arizona cop to get a girl out of jail to then kill when you can call on the entire Las Vegas police force to do your will at a single call doesn’t really stand up to much scrutiny when an order could have come to just off her in the jailcell she was resting in. So, the movie rests on the meet-cute (which is functional) and the action.
And the action is pretty good. The chase between a motorcycle and a helicopter through the desert is fun. The titular gauntlet at the end is harrowing. The shootout at Mally’s house is well-done. There’s just not that much in between, and it’s helped none at all by Shockley’s general dimness at what’s going on.
This really does feel like a reaction to Harry Callahan. The on-the-ball but willing to break any rules Callahan is replaced by a wayward cop who ends up needing to follow the rules to the letter to prove his point. It’s just…Shockley ends up not being that interesting or compelling. Eastwood does everything he can with the role, but there’s just not that much he can do from a performance perspective. Locke is more interesting as Mally, the call girl suddenly thrust into a world she understands well enough to be afraid of.
It’s just that there’s not a whole lot to hold interest in between its handful of action scenes. Overall, it’s okay, a lesser work of a director who had already shown that he was capable of more.