|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 30 March 1999|
Action-thrillers tend not to age well. Stunts, special effects and even plot twists are constantly being updated, so that yesterday’s jolt-a-minute movie can look downright relaxed when seen today. Still, it’s easy to appreciate and enjoy films like ‘The Gauntlet’ on their own terms. The plot is solidly constructed and while the pyrotechnics aren’t exactly surprising, they are executed effectively.
Director/star Clint Eastwood plays Ben Shockley, an alcoholic, undervalued Phoenix cop who is assigned to escort Las Vegas hooker and crucial trial witness Augusta "Gus" Malley (Sondra Locke) back to Arizona to testify against a mobster. However, Shockley’s superiors want Gus dead and are more than willing to waste their man in the process.
Most of the film consists of Ben and Gus trying by every means conceivable to get to Phoenix in one piece. The script by Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack has a traditional, perfectly competent arc, taking Ben from antagonistic disbelief of Gus’ claims of dire peril to doubt to anger through iconic Eastwood resolve. The dialogue suffers most from the passing of the years -- it wasn’t all that imaginative even in ’77 and is positively flat by now. (Gus is given particularly dreary faux-tough dame talk.) Still, there’s something refreshing about a bullets-and-blow-ups film that takes time to get to know the characters; Eastwood and Locke often make it worthwhile and the pacing benefits from the variation.
Storywise, it’s not hard for us to guess what’s coming most of the way through, but the setpieces are executed with great proficiency, flair and energy. The first explosion comes decently early on, in Chapter 6, but Chapter 8 is where the sound distinctions really start to make themselves felt, with a great atmospheric ambient blend of tires on gravel, engine sounds and the whine of the desert wind. Chapter 13 has a striking night-time firefight that looks almost black and white with the vivid punctuation of the muzzle flashes. Chapter 18 contains a rather unfortunate inclusion of would-be exciting soundtrack music in with the genuinely bracing sound of helicopter rotors dueling sonically (and nearly literally) with the engine of a motorcycle racing below. The explosion that climaxes the sequence is visually impressive and has a lovely grace note on the soundtrack as the resultant fire crackles subtly on the audio track. Chapter 31 is a proper climax to the film, containing the sequence that anybody who saw ‘The Gauntlet’ on its initial theatrical release will still remember from that first long-ago viewing.
Any movie with even one segment that a viewer can recall 22 years later is probably worth watching now. ‘The Gauntlet’ may not have the most original premise in the history of its genre, but it provides a lot of strong action in the service of a coherent tale, made by people who know what they’re doing.