In an early directorial effort from Clint Eastwood, he manages to take certain aspects of what made his character from the Dirty Harry movie a success yet manages to flip the audience’s expectation of the character completely and apply it to an action packed road movie with a convincing romantic subplot. Eastwood plays a hard as nails, yet mediocre cop Ben Shockley, who is now in the latter days of his career spending most of his time drinking himself to the bottom of a whiskey bottle. There is a Dirty Harry arrogance and toughness about his character and even though his best days as a police officer are clearly behind him he still has the determination and grit needed to get the job done. Where he differs from the Dirty Harry role is his characters feel of being nothing more than an insignificant cog in the wheel of the police force, somewhat lacking in the drive Dirty Harry had, partway through the movie commenting “I just do as I’m told.”
The film opens with Art Pepper’s saxophone playing over a helicopter shot of Phoenix, Arizona showing the wide open expanses of desert surrounding the city. It is in this desert that much of the films action will take place as the two lead characters attempt to get back to the city.
In his introduction we see Shockley pull his car up to the police station where as he opens the door a bottle rolls out and smashes’ on the pavement and our red-eyed, hung over hero emerges for another day of work. He is ushered into a meeting with the police commissioner Blakelock where he is told that he is a man who has the ability to get the job done and is needed to bring a “nothing witness” from Las Vegas to testify at a “nothing trial” back in Phoenix. Something immediately feels amiss as this sort of job is normally out of Shockley’s jurisdiction yet he has been recommended as being a man who can get the job done despite his best days of the force clearly being far behind him.
Upon arrival in Las Vegas we are introduced to a firecracker of a character Gus Mally, played by Sondra Locke who appears as an excellent foil for Shockley. It is obvious that he is a man who finds it difficult to trust others, let alone take advice from a woman yet when she mentions that the two of them are surely to be killed on the journey he investigates around town discovering a betting line on whether they are going to make it out of town alive. Through a series of highly violent action set pieces in which Shockley and Mally must escape a police car in an ambulance as well as flee a house which has been riddled with bullets by the police, our two leads discover a conspiracy involving the mob and the Arizona police force.
The mechanisms of the conspiracy plot begin to creak as the story goes and eventually take a back seat to the impressive action set pieces and budding romance between the two main leads. Therein lies the reason why The Gauntlet is still regarded as an action classic to this day.
Unfortunately the character of Blakelock is not fleshed out enough for his story to be emotionally stimulating as his character is not given the depth or time needed for him to be remembered as a decent villain. With his ridiculous and over the top orders to take out one man and his prisoner using what appears to be the entire Arizona police force it leaves the audience with a feeling of wondering how such cartoonish villainy managed to reach the role of police commissioner. Similarly his henchman the Assistant D.A. Feyderspiel, played by Michael Cavanaugh is not given the screen time he deserves in order for him to feel like a formidable foe to Shockley.
Where the film soars is in the brilliantly directed action pieces showing Eastwood to have the directing chops required to pull off a thrilling chase scene as well as the epic thrilling conclusion in which Shockley drives a coach through the streets of Phoenix facing a barrage of over 8,000 bullets in the gauntlet which refers to the films title. Indeed in an early scene in which Shockley and Mally are holed up at her house waiting for what they think is to be a police escort they are instead faced with a baptism of bullets that literally crumbles the house to its foundation. Firepower is definitely something which the police force is not afraid to use to great and often ridiculous extent in order to ensure the two leads are kept out of the way.
Another brilliant action scene is when Shockley and Mally are being pursued by a helicopter whilst riding a motorcycle through the desert of Arizona. Eastwood directs this scene with great intimacy as the camera is placed on the front of the motorcycle allowing to audience to feel that themselves are actually being shot at amidst all of the chaos. The claustrophobic feel of the tunnels they drive through and the suspense as the helicopter waits on the exit with their rifles ready shows his great eye for suspense behind the camera. Interestingly the film is peppered with ironic signs saying things such as ‘God Gives Eternal Life’ while violence reigns in the background.
The romantic subplot is what really drives the movie forward however with Locke and Eastwood having great chemistry with each other as they slowly fall in love on their journey. Locke lends Mally a fierce intelligence which she uses to spar with Shockley who initially thinks nothing of Mally as she was previously a prostitute and is now the reason he is made to be a target. She starts to chip away at his tough exterior by telling him that morally police are far more bankrupt than prostitutes with their reputation for corruption being something they will never be able to remove. The scene that ultimately solidifies their bond is when Shockley is being beaten on a train by a group of bikers whom he had a previous confrontation with when Mally bears her body in order to distract them. They have both saved each other from certain death and both with regrettable pasts decide to forget it all and live a quiet existence in Northern Arizona, a world away from the path of destruction which has plagued them throughout the journey.