Saturday Afternoon Movies, Part 1 – Firefox (1982 Clint Eastwood)

It is a quiet, rainy Saturday afternoon. You’ve got the house to yourself for the first time in ages. You don’t have the energy for mayhem and chaos. You’re just going to stay in and watch a movie. But what movie? What are you in the mood for? And is your mood likely to change? Sure, at this early stage in the day you’re probably feeling all impressed with yourself. You want to watch something dark, moody and intellectually challenging but by the time you’ve had a few beers you’ll be bored and yearning for some high-tech explosions. Is there such a movie? A movie which is two movies in one? Well, yes there is, and it is called From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). For the first half, that film is a bleak, hip crime thriller where everyone sounds like Quentin Tarantino after four cans of Red Bull. For the second half, it is a bat-shit crazy, vampire horror where everyone sounds like Quentin Tarantino after six cans of Red Bull. It isn’t a bad movie all in all. Robert Rodriguez sure can direct an action scene, and George Clooney manages to play against type while at the same time dragging the whole thing out of the B-movie swamp, which would later completely consume Grindhouse and all its minions. But, at the end of the day, if you don’t like gore and you’re not yearning to live in a world where everyone sounds like they work in a video store you’d better be looking for something else. But what else?

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Craig Thomas wrote Firefox in 1977. The film adaption followed in 1982. Firefox, the book, is the second in a series of techno-thrillers Thomas wrote between 1976 and 1998. It is a shame that Thomas’s books are now not so well known as his American equivalent Tom Clancy. Clancy’s ‘Ryan-verse’ has stood the test of decades partly because of his willingness to grow and develop his characters and partly because of the success of numerous movies and video games. In fact the ‘Ryan-verse’ continues with a successful current TV series, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan (2018 – present). Craig Thomas’s novels follow a similar pattern. They exist in the shadowy world of Cold War espionage which returned to prominence in the 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan and the escalation in tension between NATO and The Warsaw Pact. The resurgence of the Cold War was in part caused by a build-up of the American armed forces over the same period and in part due to Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s willingness to publicly denounce the Soviet Union. In real-world politics this was the time of “the Evil Empire” when the Special Activities Division of the CIA was operating in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, when America worked with the Iranian government to purge subversive elements and a new Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) would shield the US from Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. Next to this chaos, an adventure story about a guy stealing a super advanced warplane seems almost cute.

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Like his American counterpart, Craig Thomas built his novels around a series of recurring characters. Unlike Tom Clancy, Thomas’s novels are most often set around operations conducted by MI6. In the case of Firefox, both film and book, the recurring characters of Sir Kenneth Aubrey and Patrick Hyde have thought up a last minute desperate mission to steal the Soviet Union’s latest and most advanced warplane, the Mig-31 (code-named ‘Firefox’). Why steal the Firefox? Well, not only is it the fastest thing in the sky by about three times the speed of sound, and not only is it completely invisible to radar, it is also equipped with thought-guided weapon systems. And it is here where Firefox takes its first awkward lurch into science fiction. Something which, in this case, sits awkwardly with the gritty espionage plot and which gives the film its split personality. Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October (1984), which became a movie in 1990, has a vaguely similar plot about the CIA trying to acquire a super advanced Soviet submarine. The big difference in concept seems to be that while Clancy’s submarine is based on technology feasible at the time, Thomas’s warplane might as well be a TIE-fighter. However, it is the nature of the plane which drives the plot. It will be undefeatable by conventional forces and so must be stolen immediately. NATO must possess its secrets or the Evil Empire will win. Unfortunately for those planning the mission there is only one person who can fly the plane: Clint Eastwood. Eastwood plays Mitchell Gant (another recurring Thomas character), who is an American pilot and Vietnam veteran. Gant is uniquely qualified because he has been trained to fly Soviet planes, he is fluent in Russian, and most importantly he is the same size as the Russian pilot so he’ll fit in the seat (really).

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The first half of the movie is about getting Gant into Russia disguised as a drug smuggler. It is dark and gritty and moves along at a fair pace as if the movie is impatient to get to the stuff with the fighter plane. And it probably is. There is nothing of the glamorous world of Bond or the unreality of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or even the pacey action of more recent spy thrillers. Austria stands in for Russia, Vienna stands in for Moscow (apart from one scene where Eastwood crosses in front of what is obviously a blurry bluescreen of Red Square – not until the golden cinematic combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Belushi in Red Heat (1988) would an American production be given permission to shoot in Red Square for real). So the spy stuff at the beginning is down and dirty and full of realism. Eastwood plays Gant with nervous twitches and building paranoia. It isn’t until the second half, where Gant is actually flying the plane, that the movie seems to take off – literally, figuratively and in every other sense. The second half of the movie is a much more relaxed Eastwood, who is at the controls of the ultimate warplane, standing alone against the dark forces of the Soviet military. This whole half of the movie stands in crazy contrast to what has come before. As soon as the plane takes off the whole film morphs into a science fiction action film with a series of crazy, if a little dated, special effect sequences. John Dykstra, the special effects supervisor, had previously worked on Star Wars (1977) and Battlestar Galactica (1978) and it shows. He invented a new technique – reverse bluescreen – for the flying sequences.

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Firefox was the eighth film directed by Clint Eastwood. Everyone will have their own opinion about the change in direction of his directorial style – from inspiration to something personal and new. Was it Unforgiven (1992)? Or was it White Hunter Black Heart (1990)? Once you get into the 90s and beyond, Eastwood is truly a world class moviemaker with a style all of his own. It is fair to say that this isn’t true while he was still attempting to find his stride. High Plains Drifter (1973), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Pale Rider (1985) are good movies but feel a lot like tributes to Sergio Leone and the westerns of Eastwood’s early career. Other films like Every Which Way But Loose (1978) and Heartbreak Ridge (1986) mean little without Eastwood’s star power and charisma at their centre. Firefox falls into the category of “one of the weird ones” along with curiosities like The Eiger Sanction (1975) and The Gauntlet (1977). Entertaining but a little dated. And yes, to be honest it has dated. The Russians are little more than comic-book villains scowling in the dark. The special effects, although cutting edge for the time, could be outpaced by an iPhone nowadays. And despite the wealth of acting talent appearing in the film, there is very little character development. A whole herd of British and American character actors turn up to bark dialogue in various accents. But let’s face it, it is a cold war heist movie which morphs into a Star Wars-style air battle for its final act, and it is very entertaining. Most importantly, unlike Every Which Way But Loose, The Gauntlet or The Outlaw Josey Wales, the cast of Firefox does not include Sondra Locke. So there’s that as well.

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