“The Gauntlet” (1977)

by A.J. Hakari

 

I just recently finished watching the Dirty Harry series, which proudly strode the line between badass and cartoony. Blunt and forceful as Clint Eastwood’s heroics were, they were often undercut by whatever facepalm-inducing stereotypes he hauled out to prove his latest point. With these letdowns fresh in my memory, I’d hoped that 1977’s The Gauntlet would be a less complicated showcase of Clint sticking it to the man and blowing stuff up real good, with no thematic hang-ups to worry about. Simple is the operative word with The Gauntlet, so much so that just about every attempt to deepen the viewing experience pumps the brakes on what might’ve been a damned exhilarating ride.

Eastwood plays Ben Shockley, a cop so burnt out that he can’t leave his car without Jack Daniels bottles spilling out. His greatest days are behind him, which is why his new boss (William Prince) assigns him to escort a prisoner from Las Vegas to Phoenix, a “nothing witness for a nothing trial.” But not only is Ben surprised to see that his new charge is a tough-talking hooker (Sondra Locke), he soon learns that the journey home is going to be damned bumpy. This gal is holding onto some information so big, the entire Vegas mob is out to kill her and taking bets on when the deed is done. But even with great odds against him, Ben remains dead set on finishing the job, no matter how many bullets he has to dodge in the process.

The Gauntlet certainly has all the makings of the kind of liberally violent, mildly sexist, and cheerfully exploitative drive-in dwellers that the 1970s excelled in churning out. It’s one of the most action-heavy pictures on Clint’s resume, with more rounds fired his way during the climax alone than he shot himself during his entire time on horseback. So then how come a movie with a basic but effective premise and the word “grizzled” in human form as its star never seem to get off the ground? How can this flick drop off so fast after its promising initial scenes, wherein it’s just Eastwood and Locke versus whatever assassin is lurking around the next corner?

In short, the more The Gauntlet peels back the layers of its story, the less interesting it becomes. Eventually, you do learn why every thug in Vegas is after Locke’s character, and no, the specifics never quite justify making such a huge show out of silencing this one person. The film simply flows more smoothly when it’s just the leads dodging danger at every turn, living in constant fear of some faceless killer popping up from nowhere to take them down. The forced and unconvincing romantic angle sure as hell isn’t getting me to care about these two, who bicker to the point of “Nag! Nag! Nag!” becoming an unofficial catchphrase (seriously, it’s The Gauntlet‘s equivalent of “Did I do that?!”). Plus, while the action sequences are executed fairly well and suited for the flick’s gritty tone, they’re doled out in such small stop-and-go intervals that the suspense never builds up as palpably as it should.

The Gauntlet has a flavor of its own, which can’t be said for the more generic thrillers Clint got himself into as the ’80s came calling. It’s a time killer that’s grown into something of a cult film since its release, though it doesn’t hold a candle to other siege flicks of the time. Feel free to dig The Gauntlet all you want, but if you need me, I’ll be hanging out at Precinct 13.

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