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The Gauntlet Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 31, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    The Gauntlet Review
    “Shockley's got to be stopped. Stopped hard!”

    All-too often thrown in with Clint's Dirty Harry series in kind of in the same dislocated-association as Connery's Never Say Never Again is with the official Bond run, 1977's explosive actioner, The Gauntlet, is actually a movie that is a good few years ahead of its time. Given that the 80's confronted just this sort of relentless, episodic suspense-builder head-on - taking an everyday reluctant hero and forcing him to undergo a series of escalating dilemmas, each one topping the last until the whole shebang has become a preposterously overblown, but immensely enjoyable romp - as a blockbuster staple, back when Eastwood's foul-mouthed road-trip to hell was released this dynamic was a breed apart. Thrillers, especially Eastwood's urban thrillers, all featured peaks and troughs in the tension. The pace and the stakes may pick up, but the narrative would always find a moment or two to return to relative normality - even the electrifying original Dirty Harry had climb-downs during its trendsetting drama - but The Gauntlet hits the ground running and just doesn't let up. Even that poster, depicting a muscular but battered and bloodied Clint, as dogged detective Ben Shockley sheltering Sondra Locke's hunted hooker, Gus O'Mally, beside a bus that has been shredded by machine-gunfire had a kind of apocalyptic swagger that seemed to promise a story in which anything could happen and the conventions of the genre would be blown to smithereens.

    And, to my mind, Clint's seventh directorial outing, almost fulfils that promise.

    Gathering around him his usual filmmaking family - screenwriters Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack, the ubiquitous Locke alongside co-stars Pat Hingle, Doug McGrath and bit-parters Roy Jenson and Dan Vadis amongst other familiar faces and, of course, composer Jerry Fielding - Eastwood already had an established format and production camaraderie with his crew that would ensure that the on-screen chemistry and atmosphere would flow smoothly and right by the numbers. Cinematographer Rexford L. Metz was a newcomer to Eastwood's stable, but his exquisite widescreen photography certainly kept up the director's vogue even for him to be kept on-side for Any Which Way But Loose the following year. But the plot, this time, would propel the modern-day thriller into what would become known as the “Action” genre. Things like The French Connection and the earlier Dirty Harrys (pre-The Gauntlet) had oodles of action and mayhem, of course, but they were still rooted in the grit and realism of the police procedural. The Gauntlet was as streamlined and linear as a western, the story impossibly simple. Alcoholic Phoenix cop, Ben Shockley, is given the assignment to escort a Vegas hooker, witness in a major court case, back to Phoenix to testify. He doesn't know the details - doesn't even want to - and isn't happy about the job. His superior, William Prince's Blakelock, another in a long line of rankled, exasperated bosses that Eastwood's characters have served to irritate, knows his reputation and despite Shockley's assertion that “he gets the job done”, nobody is under any illusion that the task is anything other than a veritable punishment. But just how severe a punishment will very swiftly become apparent, for no sooner has Shockley met Sondra Locke's acid-tongued witness, than a vice-like grip of hoods, turncoats, assassins, bikers and seemingly every cop in California closes-in to silence them forever.

    And with no way to get to the airport and no-one to trust but a woman who appears to despise him, Shockley is forced to go across country by whatever means he can find to avoid bullets, bombs and helicopters, all the while the niggling suspicion that someone has actually set him up chewing away at him.

    “Now if I have suspicion a felony's been committed, I can just walk right in here anytime I feel like it, 'cause I got this badge, I got this gun, and I got the love of Jesus right here in my pretty green eyes.”

    The concept of a two characters from opposite sides of the track becoming embroiled in a devious circle of danger and deceit and having to get along in order to survive is not new of course. The western has utilised just such a premise a thousand times over, but Eastwood manages to create a thick milieu of ceaseless corruption in which paranoia breeds and the odds keep on racking up against the pair making it. Indeed, in one of the film's coolest elements, all the bookies are running a line on a fictitious horse called Mally No-Show, a vile warning and taunt to the duo as they make their perilous way across the state line. That they will both come to form a relationship is hardly a surprise, but how seamlessly and believably they soften up the rough edges and find it within themselves to care about one another is one of the film's strongest hooks. Shockley may have started out, a little bit too obviously if you ask me, as a burn-out, but his determination to get the job done and reaffirm his self-confidence and reputation on the Force is commendable, even if we all know that this is Clint Eastwood we're dealing with here. His subdued rage and arrogant cynicism is pure trademark anti-hero, though Eastwood does strife to make Shockley fallible, human and dumb ... very dumb. He might be quick to improvise, but it takes Mally's streetwise smarts and clinical understanding of the far-reaching power wielded by those trying to catch them that saves their bacon more than once. Without her ramming-home to him her suspicions about his “own people”, the film would have ended before it reached the half-way mark. Thus, The Gauntlet is also a bit of a trailblazer in that it creates a strong, crucial and intelligent female character in a field of movies that merely tend to use women as set-dressing, soft interludes or handicaps for the hero to have to overcome in the course of what is ostensibly his adventure. Mally is never once sidelined by the plot, even if she isn't the one piloting the motorcycle or taking the fight directly to the enemy.

    It is even possible that pixie-faced Sondra Locke actually looks attractive in this film which, as far as I am concerned, is a real first - and only. Certainly she takes to the role of the scared, but clued-up hooker with absolute gusto. Her constant bicker-banter with Shockley - “Nag, nag, nag ...” - is effervescent and bristling with cruel jibes and character-assassination, but the transition from wilful wounding to affectionate joshing is marvellously done. In fact, it is hard to spot just when the change occurs, which is the mark of two skilled performers - with history on and off the screen probably aiding things considerably - gelling so perfectly that their plight, no matter how melodramatic, comes across as vivid and convincing. And, after the distressing rape scene that Eastwood put her through in The Outlaw Josie Wales only the year before, it is highly impressive to see how confident, brazen and pro-active Locke is with this role, so incredibly matured had she become in such a brief time.

    “Now, can you handle it, or do I have to write it out in Braille and shove it up your ass?”

    Certain scenes stick in the mind. Gus's celebrated outburst at her hard-nosed chaperone of “Shockley, you big p***k!” is probably best remembered by those of us in the UK for the seriously cack-handed manner in which it was censored on TV prints and almost certainly raises a smirk or two by virtue of that ridiculous notoriety alone. But the unlimited number of bullets that gets pumped into Gus's house, then an unwitting bumpkin-copper and, of course, the famous bus-strafing during the finale - just how the surrounding cops didn't manage to hit one another during that ludicrous crossfire is totally beyond me - ensure that The Gauntlet is a firepower-fan's idea of ballistic nirvana. Yet, kudos must go to Bill McKinney's slimy, sexist bigot of a Vegas constable, who is so memorably sleazy that his filth-infested litany hangs over the movie like a sweaty cloud, infecting the mood and the motivations of all concerned. And, on a technical front, the dazzling use of extensive location shooting - a mainstay of Eastwood's self-helmed projects - is justifiably luxurious, leading to highly captivating scenes of riotous pursuit and the nigh-on perfect visualisation of two mightily small and vulnerable runners amidst a vast and hostile landscape of rock, dust and sage-brush. The fantastic helicopter chase set-piece is a real stand-out. It may follow the standard film-land conceit that asserts that armed pursuers in a whirly-bird will never hit their quarry (see also Silver Streak, First Blood and, especially, The Thing, for some incredibly inept hunters - hand grenades that literally miss by a mile!), but this extended sequence boasts some truly amazing stunt co-ordination. With a chopper that must surely be breaking some kind of Hollywood rule by spinning that close to Eastwood on his pilfered hog as he races through the rocky ravines and cliff-edge roads, the film raises the bar considerably for such airborne hit-and-run tactics. The actual flight-path of the helicopter is cause for concern as well - just look at the wildcat dips, banks and swerves that it makes only feet above the deck. Tremendously unpredictable and scary stuff, folks. And let's not forget the more than decent car-and-ambulance chase much earlier on that is as highly frenetic and expertly edited as the similar sequence in the often overlooked Elliot Gould/Robert Blake cop thriller Busting from Peter Hymans (1974). The door-smashing incident is brilliantly achieved, all wide-eyed horror and crackerjack-timing.

    “We clear the streets along his route. Deploy our men as an impassable barrier - a gauntlet, if you will. He won't have a chance.”

    Where the film comes undone is in the scenes with the biker gang, the ironically monikered The Nobles. Although the main trio turn out to be stereotypically nasty, with yet another rape ordeal for Locke to endure (why did Eastwood keep on doing this to her, with even Sudden Impact dragging her through such trauma?) and even features another of Eastwood's cinematic penchants in having a vicious female antagonist in the mix, the outright image projected of the chapter is comical and ineffectual. Hence, when things get rough a little later on, after a severely unlucky coincidence turns charity into torture, we can't take them seriously at all as out-and-out aggressors. I recall reading the novelisation of the movie a long time ago and it is worth mentioning that the same set-up and scenario is actually much more convincing, brutal and lingering. As it stands in the film version, Eastwood makes the freight-carriage sequence uncomfortable in the wrong way, by injecting some degree of comedy comeuppance into it. Somehow, for me, this doesn't sit right. Mind you, we do get to see yet another scene of Eastwood getting seven shades knocked out of him which, like I've said in other reviews, is something that few leading men would subject their screen alter-egos to.

    “What the hell's wrong with you, man? This is a bus!”

    Right, now grit your teeth and then say “I don't give a damn if it's the Queen Elizabeth ... now you get your hand away from that lever!”

    Dafter than it may once have seemed - the escalation of police intervention is truly out of any credible proportion - The Gauntlet is still highly infectious fun in the best escapist tradition with an influence that reaches down to the likes of Midnight Run and 16 Blocks. Nowhere near the pinnacle of what Eastwood would prove he was capable of, in fact you could sincerely suggest that he was merely coasting on this one, yet, at the same time providing all the elements in abundance that had made him a superstar. The wise-ass sarcasm and deadpan put-downs are all there - although a lot of them issue from Locke's lips and are actually directed at Eastwood. The maverick character with a badge and gun and an off-the-wall approach to duty - present and correct, sir. The hair-trigger violence that can abruptly alter the tone of the film on a dime is also adroitly adhered to. The irresistible combination of jeopardy and humour is as ripe as Eastwood has ever come up with. And the inescapable cool of Clint's flinty-eyed persona and ever-laconic attitude is very much the vital ingredient that holds the whole thing together. But The Gauntlet does break the mould in the ways that I have mentioned and, as such, definitely deserves to be re-evaluated.