#36 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
One for Eastwood (Bronco Billy), one for the audience (Firefox). Eastwood really seemed to be in this alternating take on things at this still early bit of his directing career. He was going from little character pieces about men he saw himself as and more action/thriller fare that should be bringing in the audiences to the theaters. Eastwood was better at the personal stuff, if you ask me. Firefox isn’t bad. If I had to use a single word to describe it, I’d call it competent. Unlike The Eiger Sanction, which meandered around without point for so long that any sense of the central thrills were long gone by the time the finale started, Eastwood does show some decent command of thriller sequences. Decent command is all, though. There are some interesting bits here and there, but at two hours and fourteen minutes long, this is at least twenty minutes too long to be the kind of gripping thriller it feels like it’s supposed to be.
Mitchell Gant (Eastwood) is an air force pilot who was shot down in Vietnam and is now having flashbacks during PTSD episodes about some napalming he witnessed. When information is dug up about the Soviet Union have a new, Mach-5 capable fighter jet called the Firefox, the Air Force sees no one better to take up the mission of sneaking into the Soviet Union and stealing this aircraft from a top secret air base than him. Sure. I’ll say this upfront, I think the PTSD angle adds absolutely nothing to the film. It’s a somewhat interesting bit of backstory to Gant, but it comes up occasionally to be dismissed without incident. It is possible that it is supposed to tie into the series of questions Gant asks of the Soviet dissidents who help him in the country about their motives, providing a contrast of a cynical man, harmed by his own government and talking like dying for his country is pointless (on a mission he accepts that could very well kill himself). I’m going to assume that it was either an idea of Eastwood’s himself to add into the narrative to help make the film speak to him a bit more, or it was one of the underwritten ideas in the script based on stuff from the source novel by Craig Thomas that Eastwood was originally interested in. However, the script by Alex Lasker and Wendell Wellman simply doesn’t navigate the ideas with the machinations of the thriller well at all.
Anyway, where this movie is at its best is in Gants’ time in Moscow. Through a series of overcomplicated steps about Gants taking the place of a heroin smuggler, he ends up in a subway station as the KGB tightens the noose around him. There’s the killing of a KGB officer in a bathroom, and Gant needing to navigate through a KGB checkpoint. It’s surprisingly tensely done, and it works. It’s not spectacular, but it works.
Gant gets deeper into Russia, throwing off his tail and meeting up with Dr. Baranovich (Nigel Hawthorne), the lead developer on the Firefox project. It’s here where we get both a rundown of how the heist is supposed to play out (always helpful in a thriller) as well as Baranovich describing the difference between points of view about his situation. As a citizen of the Soviet Union, subject to terror by the KGB, dying to injure them becomes worthwhile. It’s an interesting contrast to what Gant is supposed to be: a selfish man who doesn’t want to risk his life, except that he’s already weeks into this mission that he volunteered for. There’s an interesting idea here, but the thriller mechanics don’t gel with it. That’s something that could have been addressed in the writing, but no one did. It’s weird where it stands.
The events in the hangar are, again, decently competent stuff. The noose around Gant tightens even further as an investigation breaks out led by Colonel Kontarsky (Kenneth Colley), taking bits of information gathered since Gant entered the country to identify him and his goal. All of that gets undermined, though, when Gant, his face hidden in the pressure suit, simply walks into the Firefox and turns it on while every single guard in the place is distracted. I mean…that’s just lazy filmmaking right there.
Gant flies away, and there’s still about half an hour in the film. As he flew away, I was wondering if I was going to like the film more than I ended up, but the protracted flight away just kind of dragged on. There’s a lot of detail about the Soviet response as Kontarsky gets reprimanded by General Vladimirov (Klaus Lowitsch) and the First Secretary (Stefan Schnabel), they discuss a lot about why Gant has to be going south (he goes north), and the putting the secondary Firefox into the air to commit to a chase. The Gant side of things involves a whole lot of Gant talking to himself. It’s kind of silly.
The final fight is, again, competent, and little more. It doesn’t help that the opposition pilot has no character and is simply an object of the plot. His little salute to Gant late in the fight, when he thinks he’s about to win, doesn’t really do anything (I recalled the much superior moment in Howard Hawks‘ The Dawn Patrol).
Eh. It’s not good. It’s not bad. It’s very lukewarm. Eastwood simply didn’t bring the urgency to the proceedings, especially the final act, that a thriller really needs. There is an interesting idea percolating around, but it doesn’t work in this film. Every performer is good, better than the material needs, giving a certain sense of life to even smaller parts like Freddie Jones as an exposition machine who explains a whole bunch of stuff to everyone throughout the film.
When setting out on this Eastwood adventure, it was Firefox that I was probably most interested in because it felt so completely out of place. Well, considering The Eiger Sanction, it’s not as out of place as I assumed. Eastwood has made worse, that’s for sure, but he’s also made better.