1970s, 2/4, Action, Clint Eastwood, Review

The Gauntlet

#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.

Rating: 2/4

9 thoughts on “The Gauntlet”

  1. Yeah, I love that poster too.
    I don’t love the Gauntlet but I like it. (We’ll get to Eastwood-directed stuff I don’t like eventually, oh yes we will).

    Shockley is a slob hero. He’s not Dirty Harry (which confused me as I used to get The Gauntlet and The Enforcer mixed up in my head when I was young) but he is acting heroically. He’s bent but not corrupt. He’s also a very expendable asset, which is most of why he’s in this plot. The idea of ‘burning’ a cop to kill someone else you want more is….just not fiction. It has happened in the really real world and when you’ve got your tin foil handy, that actually grounds a somewhat unrealistic movie.

    But being willing to burn and bury a cop in the desert is one thing, a running gunfight through downtown Phoenix is something else. Despite being a ‘cool’ scene, that is what really broke my immersion and suspension of disbelief. There’s simply no way I could buy that fusillade of gunfire happening in broad daylight, by cops, AND the good guys winning in the end.

    Sandra Locke and Clint are good together. Sadly her career gets ended when their relationship ends, but while it lasts…she gets to play a tough but attractive women in a time when good, juicy female roles like that were rare.

    Oh and I’m TeamProstitute. I know cops and (knew) hookers and the hookers are better people.

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    1. From what I understand, Locke and Eastwood were together for six years after her last role in Sudden Impact. I think it was her vanity at needing to be cast as the young, leading lady (like Marlene Dietrich, but less exotic) that kept her from getting roles that Eastwood himself didn’t cast her in. Then, post-breakup, Eastwood apparently completely screwed over her career by backstopping all of her development efforts at Warner Bros.

      But yeah, this is middle of the road Eastwood. This is the less enthralling side of Eastwood not really being picky with scripts. He finds something interesting, and then he just shoots it. That something can be small, like this reaction to Dirty Harry, or it can be the whole film like Unforgiven.

      It kept him working, though. He was able to output a lot over his career. He was effectively a studio director working after the end of the studio system, and that’s surprisingly unique among named directors of the modern era.

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  2. I liked the flipping of Clint from the Dirty Harry always on top of it character to the cop who is a little slow and has to have the witness point out a few things to him. And they handled that well, with her trying to suggest it in a way that wouldn’t be insulting to him or put him on the defensive.

    The one thing that drives me nuts about this movie is the gauntlet scene, where there are cops on both sides of he road more of less firing at each other. I know they have a bus between them, but a few shots are going to miss and hit the cop on the other side of the road. I remember wondering how they could have even thought of staging that scene in that way, maybe someone could have pointed that out? A bit of a misfire by Clint there. Maybe he figured – it’s just a movie, more dramatic that way.

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    1. I think Locke telling Clint that his superior is crooked just goes beyond blindingly obvious that no matter the tone or approach, it feels like something even he should have had an inkling of.

      By the titular gauntlet, the movie has embraced silliness to such an extent that it doesn’t bother that much in context. It’s not really trying to be taken seriously, so sure, let’s just have a ridiculous action ending. No, it doesn’t make sense (the American colonials doing the same thing in a short scene in The Patriot bothers me more than this), but whatever. Might as well end the movie with something thinly entertaining.

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