(On Cable TV, October 2019) I do not envy anyone who takes on the challenge of watching all of Clint Eastwood’s westerns back-to-back. Sure, Eastwood’s westerns feature some all-time classics and the man himself has an exceptional charisma. But at some point, they all start to blend into each other without much to distinguish them. I’ve been able to avoid that ennui by spacing these movies at a few months’ interval, but I’d be shaky about any pointed quiz to differentiate them, and I think I’ve finally reached by saturation point with Joe Kidd. Eastwood once again stars as a quiet but capable protagonist, this time going after a landowner for a variety of reasons. While a reasonably revisionist western, Joe Kidd nonetheless fails to impress—it feels like rote repetition of familiar tropes, with only a few quirks to perk things up throughout the film. The best flourish comes near the end, as a train is used to smash through a saloon and instigate a brief shootout. Otherwise, I’m going to have problems even remembering Joe Kidd in a few days, let alone identify what makes it different.
(On Cable TV, August 2019) There’s something in the air about older movie stars not quite wanting to face down retirement. So, we get The Old Man and the Gun, and The Mule, about older men turning to crime. The similarities are uncanny, with both films (inspired by true stories) showing legendary movie stars playing old guys using their charm to get away with things that old people really shouldn’t be doing, and featuring the criminals unknowingly interacting with their police pursuers. But while Robert Redford may push it to charmingly flirt with bank tellers in The Old Man and the Gun, Eastwood here can’t help but cast himself cavorting with women young enough to be his granddaughters (usually two of them at once). Ah well—what’s the use of being a Hollywood celebrity director if you can’t engineer yourself a threesome? Even though The Mule follows the usual formula, it does invite scrutiny: Eastwood, notoriously conservative, tries to have it both ways by showing how one can personally benefit from crime until it becomes dangerous, while also tut-tutting younger generations wasting their lives in a cycle of crime and violence. (This is called “hypocrisy,” and it is indeed a central feature of modern American conservatism.) There are a few sops here to Eastwood’s old-guy crankiness, from “There’s something wrong with you, kids” to motorcyclists who won’t take his advice and so on. It does occur to me that we’re in sore need for a further subcategorization of what it means to be “old”—Sixty may be the new fifty, but when you have Eastwood pushing ninety, that’s an entirely different ball game. Every film of his may be the last, and The Mule at least has the distinction of being quite a bit better (and enjoyable) than the much maligned The 3:17 p.m. to Paris. [April 2022: Peeking from the future, I also note a similarity between The Mule and Cry Macho, which will probably keep going for as long as Eastwood casts himself in tough-guy roles.] Even despite the issues and flaws and contrivances, I did still like The Mule—it’s a fun crime caper that features an unusual character, and I have a hunch that despite my having some issues with Eastwood-the-man, I’m going to miss him when he’s gone. But I have a feeling he’s going to die with his boots on, on a movie set.
(In French, On TV, August 2019) One of the strongest arguments for the abolition of the death penalty in the United States may be the incessant stream of message movies taking it as a premise to be denounced. The Player laughed about a last-minute stay of execution climax in 1994, but True Crime played it absolutely straight in 1999 (and The Life of David Gale would subvert it in 2003). Other examples abound, but the point still stands: The death penalty can be a cheap tool in the wrong hands, and even the best-intentioned filmmakers can fall in the trap of excessive melodrama. Granted, Clint Eastwood’s film has other problems, and one of his worst ones here is to cast himself in wildly inappropriate roles. Here we have Eastwood directing 69-year-old Eastwood as a two-fisted rogue reporter who regularly steps out of his marriage to have affairs with wildly inappropriate (and much younger) partners. Knowing what we know about Eastwood’s personal behaviour, we have to ask: Wish fulfillment or acting from experience? The problem is that we never believe Eastwood in the role of a clearly much younger (as in: forty-something) protagonist. Even as he goes beyond the expected article to investigate the events leading to an impending execution, we know where this is going. If you manage to set your disbelief aside for a moment, however, True Crime does actually manage to turn into a decent potboiler thriller, with the death penalty as the big consequence everybody runs against. The ending is as predictable as it’s mildly hilarious if you have fresh memories of The Player. With Eastwood’s no-nonsense style, it becomes a serviceable thriller with a few basic script issues, one unforgivable miscasting and an over-the-top conclusion that couldn’t have gone any other way.
(On TV, June 2019) At first, there is a bafflingly familiar quality to High Plains Drifter that may make you question why the film exists, so closely does it feel like half a dozen other Clint Eastwood westerns. Here we have a loner coming to town, shooting a few people up to no good, and asked to stick around to protect the town from a bigger evil. But even at the same time, there’s something not quite right with the movie, something that sets it apart: Our protagonist rapes a woman in the film’s first ten minutes and before long we understand that the villagers are clearly plotting among themselves to keep a secret from the hero. High Plains Drifter gets weirder the longer it goes on, as more secrets are revealed and the “innocent” villagers’ true allegiances are revealed. Throughout it all, we also realize how there’s a strong probability that the film is not entirely realistic. The dark-red climax gets positively occult as evidence of supernatural happenings accumulate. Noteworthy for being one of Eastwood’s first solo directing efforts (clearly inspired by Leone and Siegel), the film includes—of all things—what could be interpreted as one of cinema’s earliest first-person-shooter sequences. While the film may or may not belong to the supernatural horror genre, it’s the explanation that makes the most sense and interest given the clues given by the film. Eastwood fans may want to compare High Plains Drifter with Pale Rider, which seems to come to a similarly ambiguous situation from the other side of the good/evil coin.
(On Cable TV, January 2019) If you’re having trouble keeping track of Clint Eastwood’s westerns at home—I certainly can use a refresher from time to time—, Hang’em High is pretty much what it says in the title: This is the one where Eastwood (playing essentially the same character) gets hanged by a gung-ho posse too quick to designate a guilty party, but miraculously escapes and becomes a volunteer federal marshal eager to enact some revenge. The third act is also all about a big public hanging. In between, we get thoughts about frontier justice. If there’s anything looking like an unusual take on Eastwood’s persona here, it’s that his character ultimately works within a (very loose) judicial system, although Dirty Harry isn’t too far away in having him go to extraordinary lengths to punish villains with little regard to due process. (In how many movies has Eastwood played a lawyer? I rest my case, your honour.) The atmosphere of a frontier town is well presented, enough to make us reflect about the rocky colonization of the frontier and how justice took a bit longer to arrive. Eastwood is equal to himself (for better or for worse) and the film doesn’t quite have the worst qualities of later westerns that presented Eastwood as a quasi-supernatural figure. The Leone influence is clear, and that probably tells you all you need to know about the film’s direction. Hang’em High remains a solid Eastwood western, not particularly distinctive but not dull either.
(On Cable TV, January 2019) After a few examples of the genre, I’m getting to realize that authorized documentaries about famous directors are never going to give viewers a solid critical overview of the director’s work. Altman, de Palma, Spielberg and here Eastwood Directs… It costs too much and requires too much work to set up interviews with the directors and their colleagues to actually dare offer something other than a celebration of their work. The disconnect between what is shown on-screen and what there is to say about a director’s work (or his life!) will seldom be as notable as with Eastwood Directs: The Untold Story. It doesn’t take much of a look through the most elementary biography of Eastwood’s life to realize that he’s a fascinating man—a conservative with a past as an extreme womanizer (he recently discovered his eighth child that we know of) and allegations of spousal abuse, a peaceful man with a macho persona, a landmark actor who successfully transitioned to a director, a filmmaker so difficult that he has a Director’s Guild rule named after him, and a director reportedly uninterested in anything more than a few takes. This would be rich material for any objective biography, but it doesn’t take a long time to realize that Eastwood Directs is meant to be a hagiography of Eastwood’s work as a director as told by friends and colleagues. There’s not much of an “untold story” here as the film blends old and new interviews (judging from the film stock). It’s strikingly incomplete: OK, we can accept that it’s going to focus on Eastwood’s work as a director and not on the shambles of his personal life. Still, that doesn’t excuse the complete absence of any discussion about the DGA’s “Eastwood Rule” forbidding actors from firing directors and taking over the film. Any documentary purporting to be about Eastwood directing that doesn’t mention that rule is blatantly dishonest. While the film does have some material in terms of facts and anecdotes (including the actors’ perspective on Eastwood’s famous two-takes-is-all-I-need efficiency as refreshing and a mark of trust in them), this really isn’t an objective, complete or even fair assessment of his work. Writer/director Richard Schickel spends so much time talking about some movies that it quickly becomes nothing but a praise fest for them. Eastwood is great, Eastwood is fantastic, says every one of his friends without mentioning Eastwood’s legendary clashes with directors throughout his career. In other words, I am very, very disappointed by this film—it doesn’t take much to realize that Eastwood is hardly worthy of any lionization, but Eastwood Directs makes backflips in order to avoid saying anything of substance about him. That’s not a documentary—that’s a birthday present.
(On TV, January 2019) In some ways, Pale Rider can be seen as a typical stranger-cleans-town western, what with lead Clint Eastwood playing a mysterious stranger coming to a remote mountain town to get rid of the rapacious mining tycoon that has assaulted the citizenry. But there are enough hints (in the film’s title, or the end of the prologue, or the stranger’s lack of backstory, or his near-magical shooting ability) to suggest that this is a quasi-supernatural Eastwood western along the lines of High Plains Drifter. Whether you’ll enjoy the results will depend more on your appreciation for the realistic part of the film than its more supernatural or religious implications—at least it’s considerably less creepy than High Plains Drifter. Still, Eastwood has made a truckload of westerns featuring more or less the same character, and anyone can be (un) forgiven if they have trouble telling them apart. It’s competently executed, obviously relying on Eastwood’s iconic portrayal as a man of few words—although there are a few odd moments in which producer/director/star Eastwood gets to pat himself on the back by having nearly every female character (including the teenager) throw themselves at him. (He, of course, refuses—but it’s the thought that counts.) Pale Rider may have a few symbolic and religious aspirations, but much of it remains the same old western: generic but not bad. Eastwood fans, obviously, will get a lot more out of it.
(On Cable TV, December 2018) As a director, Clint Eastwood is well-known for a quick and efficient shooting style: He goes fast, doesn’t overthink the details and is often satisfied with one or two takes. This works well when dealing with good actors (including Eastwood himself), but the limits of his approach clearly show when dealing with non-professional actors such as in The 15:17 to Paris. It must have been a good idea at the time: Since the point was to make a movie about the three American who thwarted a terrorist attack on a European train in 2015, and the three young heroes of the story were still very much alive and willing, why not cast them in their own roles? As it turns out, there is a reason why we have professional actors, and the limits of their experience in portraying themselves quickly become apparent throughout the course of the film. Not that this is the biggest issue. The 15:17 to Paris, having to fill 90 minutes out of a relatively short incident involving a trio of wholesome young Americans, has to fill its running time somehow, and it’s not going to do that by, say, exploring the perspective of the terrorist. No, The 15:17 to Paris prefers to pad its running time with an awkward denunciation of secularism and then a travelogue as it follows our intrepid heroes throughout the sightseeing trip that precedes the dramatic events at the end of the movie. That’s right: Eastwood “directing” three young guys as they backpack through Europe, and a wasted Judy Greer as a mother who puts school officials in their place. The best part of the film, fortunately, comes at the end, when it’s time to deliver what audiences have come to see: a few tense minutes facing a terrorist and saving a victim. That final act of The 15:17 to Paris is much better … but it’s too bad we have to struggle through the hour that comes before. Eastwood gets terribly sloppy here, and it severely harms the point of the film.
(In French, On TV, November 2018) Each Dirty Harry movie gets worse and worse, and The Dead Pool marks not only the end of the series, but the cul-de-sac in which its increasing self-parody could lead. As the film begins, Harry Callahan has become enough of a celebrity that he qualifies for inclusion in a municipal death pools—that is, predictions on whether he will soon die. The plot gets going once someone decides to hasten his demise, motivated by overall psychopathy and revenge. Clint Eastwood sports yet another hairdo here, and I can’t underscore how weird it feels to see Callahan’s character in the firmly established 1980s: He’s such a creation of the 1970s that it just feels wrong to see him compose with the worst clichés of the decade, including Guns’n’Roses. (Sudden Impact, the fourth film of the series was indeed set in the eighties, but its small-town setting and early-decade product means that it still felt like the seventies.) It gets worse once you see Callahan interact with up-and-coming actors that would achieve notoriety a decade later: pay attention, and you’ll see Jim “James” Carrey, Liam Neeson and Patricia Clarkson (looking like Natasha McElhone!) in supporting roles adding to the weirdness. Mind you, the film has enough contemporary weirdness on its own—Callahan is here written as a self-parody, fully indulging in the worst traits of his character. The nadir of the entire Dirty Harry cycle can be found in the silly car chase featuring… an explosive remote-controlled car. (Nobody will be surprised to find out that Callahan’s car does not survive the film, as noticed by the characters. And we won’t bring up what happens to Callahan’s partners.) The Dead Pool feels like an overextended joke, a wholly useless entry in a constantly declining series. Amusingly enough, it’s not even included in many of the Dirty Harry compilations on the market, which should tell you enough about it.
(In French, On TV, October 2018) The sequel to 1978’s Any Which Way but Loose once again features Clint Eastwood as a brawler looking for love (Sondra Locke, obviously) alongside his pet chimpanzee. As with its prequel, Any Which Way You Can also proves that Eastwood’s talent for comedy is … limited. Once again, the film is a comedy largely because it’s not a drama—it plays with incongruous elements, features Eastwood in a role when he can be cheered for punching people in the face and fighting Nazi bikers. Perhaps what’s most remarkable about this sequel is that it ends up giving to its protagonist what the original denied: The girl and the fighting victory. Whether this is a reflection of giving fans what they wanted or ushering the nicer, kinder, more entertainment-driven 1980s is a matter of debate, but it does make the sequel more conventional, more satisfying and somehow less distinctive. Any Which Way You Can is worth seeing if you’ve seen the first film or are an unconditional Eastwood (or Locke) fan, otherwise it’s not particularly memorable.
(On TV, September 2018) There’s nothing particularly fancy in Two Mules for Sister Sara than a by-the-numbers Western adventure featuring Clint Eastwood, Shirley MacLaine, Mexican rebels and French antagonists. But the details are what matters, and especially the interplay between two actors in fine form. Peak-era Clint Eastwood more or less reprises his man-with-no-name role as a capable loner who comes across a woman being assaulted by bandits. Compelled to help her by her nun’s habit, they then both go on various adventures that end with the defeat of the invading French forces. I’m not a big fan of MacLaine, but she’s pugnacious and likable here as a two-fisted nun. The film does a nice job at pacing its adventures, and features one spectacular train derailment to keep things interesting. Most of Two Mules for Sister Sara has been seen elsewhere, but it’s executed so well that it feels fresh again.
(In French, On TV, June 2018) Craig Thomas’s late-seventies novel Firefox has a special place in techno-thriller history as one of the progenitors of the subgenre, paving the way for Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October (1984) and codifying many of the field’s quirks. The novel is stuffy, written in an overwrought style (especially compared to its imitators) and not as entertaining as one would suppose. The movie adaptation has more or less the same issues—while you’d expect a Clint Eastwood movie about an American caper to steal a Russian super-plane prototype to lead to white-knuckled excitement, the result is more perfunctory than thrilling. Eastwood gives an adequate performance, but the script multiplies tangents and less interesting moments. It takes a long time for the protagonist to step in the plane, and things don’t really improve afterwards given the repetitive nature of the ensuing chase and the now-primitive special effects that remind us about the film’s early-eighties pedigree. It’s really not fair to harp on the special effects given that they were innovative at the time and they still get the point across today. On the other hand, they do take viewers out of the film at a moment when they should be absorbed by the cat-and-mouse chase between two high-tech fighter planes. Still, even taking this away, the fact remains that Firefox is dour and dull, which are not attributes that should be present in a thriller. I’m glad I’ve finally seen the entire movie even decades after reading the book and Eastwood is always interesting no matter the circumstances, but it’s not essential viewing for most audiences.
(On Cable TV, May 2018) In-between MASH, Kelly’s Heroes and Catch-22, 1970 was a banner year for using other conflicts to talk about the Vietnam War. MASH transposed late-sixties war cynicism on the Korean front, while Catch-22 talked disaffection among WW2 bomber crews and Kelly’s Heroes has greedy American infantry soldiers teaming up with a hippie-led crew of tankers to go steal a few million dollars’ worth of Nazi gold. This certainly isn’t your fifties war movie—in between the self-interested soldiers, corrupt officers, friendly fire incidents and a long-haired tank leader memorably played by Donald Sutherland (who was also in MASH), it’s obvious that Kelly’s Heroes had far more on its mind than just a WW2 adventure. It’s clunky (legend has it that the filmmakers didn’t quite get what they were going for, largely because of studio interference) but it still works on a pure entertainment level largely because of the terrific cast. Sutherland aside, there’s Clint Eastwood in the heroic role, supported by Telly Savalas, Don Rickles and Harry Dean Stanton in a small role. The adventure gets going quickly and gets weirder and wilder the deeper in enemy territory it goes. The final resolution has the so-called good guys bribing Nazis to get what they want (with cues echoing Sergio Leone), which is interesting on its own. Kelly’s Heroes is more palatable now that it must have been at the time—we’ve grown used to anti-heroic portrayals of the military, and Vietnam-era attitudes toward war and war movies are now far more familiar. Still, the result is entertaining enough, and while many prefer more straight-ahead drama along the line of Where Eagles Dare, there’s no dismissing that Kelly’s Heroes can still be watched eagerly today.
(On DVD, April 2018) Every entry in the Dirty Harry series has been a small but perceptible notch below the previous one, and Sudden Impact is no exception. By this time, the series has devolved in a near-parody of the character, as Callahan goes around shooting criminals and causing heart attacks with the film chugging along approvingly. It’s an excuse for Harry to get out of town, though and before long he’s out of the familiar San Francisco frame and stuck in a small seaside town where there’s a serious serial killing spree going on. Which brings us to the real story of the film, about a sexual assault victim taking revenge upon her aggressors, and Harry being dropped in the middle of that plot. In some ways, Sudden Impact is what happens when a serious (serious isn’t incompatible with exploitative) crime drama gets taken over by a franchise character tourist. Suddenly, Harry and his dog are in the middle of a story that could very well have been told without them. The clash is rather interesting to watch—at times, far more than taking Harry at face value as he gets a bigger gun, one less partner and even fewer enemies at the end of the film than at the beginning. Clint Eastwood is imperturbable as Harry Callahan—he also directs in a matter-of-fact fashion, and gives the lead female role to his then-long-time partner Sondra Locke, who’s actually quite intriguing in an unconventional way here. The result is misshapen, often ugly, not quite respectable and definitely another step down in the series, but those watching the Dirty Harry series box set will feel as if they got their money’s worth out of Sudden Impact.
(On DVD, April 2018) Third entry in the Dirty Harry series, The Enforcer is clearly running on autopilot, much of the film being a copy of previous material bordering on self-caricature. Callahan himself is introduced in gosh-wow fashion, first ending a liquor store robbery through excessive property damage, and then having a few regressive choice words about affirmative action once he’s asked to participate in a board to hire female police officers. (One of them is assigned as his partner. You can imagine the rest.) Once reassured that we’re dealing with the stock image of Harry Callahan, the film then goes through the motions of a stock plot involving domestic terrorists and half-heartedly ties it to a criminal project. There’s a detour through black militantism that feels just this ride of outright racism, although it’s often hard to distinguish between the series’ reactionary bend and the overall attitude of the time. The result, though, remains a half-hearted success at best—while the atmosphere of mid-seventies San Francisco is interesting, the film itself is by-the-numbers and leans too heavily on violence and dispensing of its most interesting character as a motivation for Callahan. Every film in the Dirty Harry series is a bit worse than its predecessor, and The Enforcer starts straddling the line between acceptable and forgettable.