Every which way

Jan 24, 2007 at 12:00 am

It would be so easy if Clint Eastwood were as black-and-white as the characters he built his legacy on — grizzled, misogynistic loners, the very pictures of primal, untamed manliness. But having reinvented himself over the past two decades as a behind-the-camera philosophical auteur (a title he'd surely deny), that picture of tough-guy taciturnity has faded and aged in many ways.

There's now more to Clint than a rugged stride, a vengeful squint and a clever quip. He's an enigma, ready to confound our expectations with every picture he makes, including the critically acclaimed Letters From Iwo Jima, which is playing in the Detroit area (Cinema, Metro Times, Jan. 10). The rebellious individualism of Dirty Harry — a film some claim to be covertly fascist — suggests a hidden right-wing ideology that endorses the death penalty, and there are strains of sexism in much of his early work (High Plains Drifter, The Eiger Sanction, Bronco Billy). On the other side, he's been attacked by the right wing for the ludicrous assertion that Million Dollar Baby "advocates" euthanasia, and Flags of Our Fathers features plenty of pointed anti-war commentary about spin and empty symbolism that echo the current quagmire in Iraq.

But the most fascinating facet of the new and improved (and mysterious) Eastwood is his ascension, in cinema circles, to the ranks of Important Filmmaker. It's a relatively recent shift in critical thinking; after the bloody and blistering '70s neo-Westerns High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales, his career behind the lens was critically neglected for a good 15 years. As Richard Schickel says in his biography, Clint Eastwood, quoting fellow film scholar David Thomson, "Critics looked down on Eastwood. Thinking people shunned his films."

What point marks Eastwood's rise from entertainer of the masses to artist of the intellectuals? Popular opinion would suggest 1992's Unforgiven, an elegiac and myth-busting success with audiences and reviewers alike that corralled four Oscars and scorched a path for HBO's Deadwood. A better signifier of change would be 1988's Bird, an unpredictable riff on the life of Charlie Parker that remains his most anomalous picture.

But what of the films pre-Bird? Particularly the ones dismissed by most critics? Were The Eiger Sanction, The Gauntlet and Firefox really just formulaic action pictures or, looking at them in hindsight, do they contain at least an inkling of Eastwood the artist?

I decided to revisit these titles — as well as two later bombs in the director's canon, 1990's The Rookie and 1993's A Perfect World — hoping to find the complexity and depth everyone sees in his recent output. This can and has been done before; the French critics at Cahiers du Cinema brought attention to early studio auteurs like Howard Hawks, John Ford, Michael Mann and Samuel Fuller, figures previously dismissed as talented craftsmen or B-movie lightweights.

Sadly, a look at Eastwood's dry period yielded few such revelations. The Eiger Sanction, based on a dime-store spy novel by Trevanian (beware any single-named artist), is notable only for its climactic rock-climbing passage. Eastwood does his own CGI-free stunts as a CIA-like assassin scaling the Eiger wall to hunt down a man who killed an old friend. The rest of the film is downright embarrassing, bordering on self-parody without the winking acknowledgement and featuring cringe-worthy dialogue. ("Does your physical disability preclude you from coming to the point?" he growls at his albino boss after the latter's expository speech about his condition. Not exactly "Make my day," huh?)

Firefox is Eastwood's most turgid film, a Cold War "thriller" about a lethal new warplane developed in the Soviet Union that is invisible on radar screens and can fire missiles based on thought. Eastwood's pilot, a former Vietnam POW haunted by flashbacks, is nonetheless chosen as the man to infiltrate the U.S.S.R. and steal the plane. Firefox is the worst result of one of the director's most arrogant tendencies — to make virtually every film clock in at 120 to 140 minutes, even when the material just isn't there. Firefox drags on interminably, and since Eastwood himself looks stiff, uncomfortable and already aged in front of the camera, there's little hope of enjoying the ride.

The Gauntlet at least remains an entertaining piece of action-adventure fluff, a superior runaway buddy romance to Sam Peckinpah's similar The Getaway. As with Bronco Billy, the presence of Sondra Locke, with whom Eastwood lived for 12 years, alone makes each effort worth a look. Look away, though, for one of the worst examples of product placement ever — a Tab can, irrelevant to the plot, situated on a dashboard for a series of shots and given more prominence in the frame than the characters.

The Rookie, made in 1990 as a studio obligation in return for Warner Bros. funding his White Hunter Black Heart the same year, may well be Eastwood's most putrid bomb, a ridiculous cop movie that finds veteran Eastwood teamed up with new cadet Charlie Sheen to track down the ethnic cartel that — what else? — killed his old partner. Every action cliché you can imagine is here, and for its second hour the movie discards thought altogether, barreling through 17 or 18 explosive climaxes, each one sillier than the one preceding it.

It's almost hard to believe that the same heavy-handed hack who brought Firefox and The Rookie to the screen made the beautiful and lyrical A Perfect World, and even more incredible that it, too, was considered a failure (though Cahiers du Cinema christened it the best film of 1993). In it, Eastwood plays second fiddle as a Texas ranger whose masculinity is threatened by the arrival of a female criminologist (Laura Dern) to assist him on a manhunt. The real story, though, lies with the man they're tracking: an escaped convict played by Kevin Costner, who's just kidnapped a young boy from a random break-in. The boy turns out to be fatherless and raised by a strict Jehovah's Witness mother, and he soon takes to the law-breaking and free-wheeling attitude of his captor.

The film reveals that Costner's Butch Haynes was also the victim of an absent and neglectful dad, and A Perfect World becomes a profound meditation on fate and the sins of the father, its well of depth making it easy to forget the script's convenient contrivances. In a way, Eastwood went from exploiting violence in his early work to questioning it in his wise later pictures. When the boy fires a gun for the first time — like "father," like son — it has all of the bleakness of a similar scene in A History of Violence.

Significantly, A Perfect World was released between Unforgiven and The Bridges of Madison County, paving the way for the tender and contemplative Eastwood that resonates even through the blood and sweat of Million Dollar Baby and the bombs and bullets of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. There's not much to recommend in virtually artless films like Firefox and The Rookie, but seeing them makes you appreciate Eastwood's masterful maturation even more.

John Thomason is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]