(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.
(On DVD, April 2018) Considering how the first Dirty Harry movie made nearly everyone uncomfortable with how it glorified the vigilantism of its protagonist, there is something almost hilarious to see sequel Magnum Force try to distance itself from this position by pitting Harry Callahan against even worse rotten cops. From the first few moments of the film, with a credit sequence lovingly focus on the titular gun, it’s clear that this sequel regrets nothing and doubles-down on its assets. (Unsurprisingly, it was written by noted gun aficionado John Milius.) Here an entire group of killer cops is uncovered and while Callahan does get a few choice words about their methods, the film wants you to know and understand and appreciate that he’s nothing like those killer cops because reasons, that’s why. Or rather Callahan will gun down those that he determines to be bad rather than being told by some other guy. Or something. Perhaps it’s better to pretend that Callahan is the good guy and appreciate what he does in order to catch the designated bad guys. To be fair, Magnum Force does have its moments. The film isn’t as polished as the mean thrills of the original, but it does have Clint Eastwood (always an asset), Hal Holbrook as a no-fun superior antagonist, a detecting sequence that sees Callahan in a shooting contest with his enemies, and an interesting motorcycle chase climaxing on an aircraft carrier. The atmosphere of mid-seventies San Francisco is always worth a look even though the film itself is hum-drum. Magnum Force does build upon the first movie, though, so you might as well keep going through this one if ever you have the choice.
(On DVD, January 2018) The culmination of the Man-with-no-name trilogy is spectacular, grandiose and … a bit too much. While the original film clocked in at 90 minutes, The Good the Bad and the Ugly takes thirty minutes before even introducing its three main characters. Painting with a far more ambitious brush, this instalment tackles war drama and a much grander scale, but somewhat confusingly goes back in time for a prequel. But who cares when Clint Eastwood is still iconic as the nameless “Good” protagonist, while Lee van Cleef still steals the show as the outright “Bad” protagonist, with Eli Wallach’s “Ugly” wildcard bouncing between the two. It’s the apotheosis of the Spaghetti Western genre, especially when Errico Morrcone’s iconic wah-wah-waaa theme kicks in. At the same time, it does feel like a lot. It’s fun to watch, but a certain ennui sets in when it becomes obvious that the film will not hurry from one set piece to another. Writer/director Sergio Leone’s style is a Leone-ish as it gets here, with careful editing and close-ups doing much of the work in creating suspense. An expansive cap to a remarkable trilogy, The Good the Bad and the Ugly doesn’t leave viewers hungering for more.
(On DVD, December 2017) The best thing about For a Few Dollars More in following up A Fistful of Dollars is adding Lee van Cleef as a foil to Clint Eastwood’s Man with no Name. Eastwood is terrific, of course, but van Cleef is just as effective in his own way, adding tension and even more spectacular machismo to this sequel (the sequence in which they duel over a hat is quite good). The budget also seems more generous, allowing for a more fully realized version of a Western shot in Spain by an Italian crew. Sergio Leone’s direction remains just as effective, but seem more polished than in the previous film. It helps that the script is somewhat more complex than the previous film, allowing for more than a simple stranger-comes-to-town paradigm. The climax works well, and the watch motif adds another layer to the film. Add to that Ennio Morricone’s score and you’ve got a strong follow-up to the original western, and a stepping stone to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
(On DVD, December 2017) Iconism doesn’t get any starker than seeing Clint Eastwood anchor this Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western in A Fistful of Dollars. As “The Man With No Name” walks into town to drive an archetypical plot, this is as stripped-down a western as you can find. There’s only the laconic hero, villains to be vanquished and innocents to be protected. A measly budget led to a laser-like focus on the film’s core strength, bolstered by Leone’s impeccably sense of style and Eastwood’s star-making performance. It certainly works as an exercise in machismo, explaining its enduring popularity even today. Numerous set-pieces help develop Eastwood’s legend as much as his character, including an improbable but strong climax featuring bulletproof armour. Leone’s sense of direction is distinctive even without much of a budget at his disposal, grand landscape shots eventually leading to expressive close-ups that have now passed into parody. Add to that Ennio Morricone’s now-familiar score (although without the “wah-wah-waaah” flourish, only present in the third film in the series) and you’ve got the making of a genre classic. It’s rough and crude, but focused and strong.