Sunday, June 17, 2012

Summer of 1982: FIREFOX (June 18, 1982)

Released June 18, 1982, FIREFOX was a different kind of film for Clint Eastwood.  He tried espionage thrillers before with 1975's underrated THE EIGER SANCTION, but FIREFOX, based on Craig Thomas' 1977 bestseller, was a significantly more high-tech, effects-heavy project that bordered on sci-fi.  Eastwood utilized the services of famed visual/photographic effects guru John Dykstra, a protege of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, and a key figure in the visual effects of STAR WARS (1977), STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979), and the late '70s TV series BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.  With FIREFOX, Dykstra pioneered the then-revolutionary use of "reverse bluescreen," which (to grossly oversimplify) involves pre-filmed objects matted onto real backgrounds, instead of the previous standard, which would've involved miniatures shot against a projected background.  In today's CGI world, FIREFOX's visual effects range from charmingly antiquated to completely laughable and they've aged badly, but 30 years ago, they certainly looked much more impressive on a big screen.  Dykstra's innovative use of reverse bluescreen was undoubtedly a factor in FIREFOX becoming one of Eastwood's biggest hits up to that time, even spawning a popular arcade game by Atari. It was the 15th highest-grossing film of 1982 and Eastwood was on a bit of a roll going back to 1978's EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, which was followed by ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ in 1979, and BRONCO BILLY and ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN in 1980.  As a director, Eastwood had never up to this point taken on a project as large-scale as FIREFOX, with its complex special effects and James Bond-ian Cold War espionage.

But even with Dykstra's once-groundbreaking visual trickery, these days FIREFOX is generally ranked among Eastwood's worst films.  Frankly, I'm surprised it was as popular as it was in 1982.  It's sluggishly-paced, absurdly overlong at 136 minutes (in a rare instance of Eastwood tinkering with a movie after he was done with it, he seemed to recognize that it dragged badly and trimmed it down to 124 minutes for VHS and cable, which really didn't make much of a difference--the DVD is the original theatrical version) and takes forever to get going.  Eastwood is retired Air Force pilot Mitchell Gant, in hiding and still suffering from Vietnam flashbacks.  He's pulled back in by the government to work with the British on a top-secret mission to sneak into Moscow, pretend to be a Soviet military pilot (because his mother was Russian, Gant is fluent in the language), and steal Firefox, a fighter plane that's invisible to radar and has the ability to fire missiles based on the thoughts and brain impulses of the pilot.

It takes 75 minutes of screen time before Gant even gets to the hangar housing Firefox.  Until then, we follow him as he slowly (very slowly) works his way to Moscow (you could make a drinking game out of every time a Soviet officer barks "Papers, please").  There's a few tense moments in the first half and Nigel Hawthorne has a brief but memorable role as Baronovich, a Soviet dissident working with the British.  When Gant asks him why he's willing to let himself be considered expendable by the British government, Baronovich replies, "Mr. Gant, you are an American. You are a free man. I am not. There is a difference. If I resent the men in London who are ordering my death, then it is a small thing when compared with my resentment of the KGB."  It's a powerful sentiment and probably the most emotional, insightful moment in the film, and Hawthorne just nails it.  Warren Clarke also steals a few scenes as a Russian spy working with the Brits, who helps Gant get into Moscow.  Elsewhere, a wild-haired, twitching, endlessly mannered Freddie Jones completely overdoes it as the British government figure overseeing the operation.  RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK co-stars Ronald Lacey and Wolf Kahler can also be seen in supporting roles, Fassbinder vet Klaus Lowitsch plays a Russian general, and even John Ratzenberger, then an expat American actor living in London and about to be cast on CHEERS, has a small bit on a submarine near the end.

Gant (Eastwood) in one of his
numerous disguises

Watching the film today, for the first time in 20-odd years, it's actually the slower, methodical, murky espionage bits that play better.  The visual effects that dominate the second half of the film have aged so poorly that the aerial sequences just don't work at all now.   And what should've been the film's major moment--a dogfight between the Gant-piloted Firefox and Firefox II, a newer prototype piloted by the guy Gant was pretending to be--is treated almost as an afterthought by Eastwood.  Thomas' novel Firefox was followed by a 1983 sequel, Firefox Down, and Thomas wrote two other Mitchell Gant adventures--1987's Winter Hawk and 1997's A Different War-- before his death in 2011.   Eastwood never revisited the Gant character and thus far, neither has anyone else.  FIREFOX also kicked off the short-lived "Super Aircraft" craze, followed most notably a year later by the superior BLUE THUNDER (and its brief TV spinoff) and TV's AIRWOLF.

Gant goes over the plan with
Baronovich (Nigel Hawthorne)
FIREFOX opened in second place (nothing was beating E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL) and, surprisingly, remained in the top five for another month.  It's a big movie with location shooting all over the globe (Vienna doubles for Moscow), and it has some scattered strong moments, especially whenever Nigel Hawthorne is onscreen, but it's just defeated by its snail-like pacing and its bloated run time.  Eastwood's always had a tendency to let his films last longer than they need to, but this is perhaps his most egregious example.  The film isn't brought up much today in Eastwood discussions, and when it is, it's rarely in a positive light.  It's essentially Eastwood's attempt at making a huge special effects movie akin to Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, or James Bond, but his heart doesn't really seem to be in it.  FIREFOX feels more like a concession to the times than a filmmaker looking to explore a new genre, and it seems like Eastwood is deliberately procrastinating when it comes to getting Firefox in the air.  For the most part, FIREFOX is a draggy, laborious misfire that somehow became a fairly big hit.  Eastwood had the small-scale labor-of-love HONKYTONK MAN in theaters six months later, in which he played a dying Depression-era country singer on a road trip to the Grand Ole Opry with his young nephew (Eastwood's son Kyle) along for the ride.  It was a critically-acclaimed, charming period piece that didn't find an audience and became one of the biggest commercial flops of Eastwood's career.  Go figure.

Also in theaters this weekend was another change-of-pace for a big name star:  the heartwarming, feel-good, PG-rated comedy AUTHOR! AUTHOR! starring the king of heartwarming, feel-good, PG-rated comedies:  Al Pacino.  This was Pacino's first film since William Friedkin's extremely controversial CRUISING (1980), where he played an undercover NYC cop infiltrating the seedy underbelly of the gay S&M scene in search of a serial killer.  To this day, Pacino has distanced himself from CRUISING and won't talk about it, and after taking 1981 off, likely wanted to do something as different as possible.  And...no one cared.  Despite decent reviews, AUTHOR! AUTHOR! was a flop at the box office, but at least Pacino, as a preoccupied playwright who finds himself forced to take care of a houseful of kids, was trying something different.  Still several years away from an apparent voice change and the invention of his now trademark "talk quietly and then TALK REAL LOUD AND YELL FOR NO REASON!!!"/Hoo-aaah! persona, Pacino quickly shrugged off AUTHOR! AUTHOR! and returned the next year with what's arguably his most iconic role after THE GODFATHER's Michael Corleone:  Tony Montana in Brian De Palma's SCARFACE.

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