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|
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)