His job…Steal it.
A middle of the road, dated 1980s cold-war spy/action film, Firefox still packs a techno-thriller punch with the able assistance of legendary actor/director Clint Eastwood. Typical of a Warner release, the technical qualities are sterling and extra content minimal, but not bare bones for a change.
Facts of the Case
The MiG-31 Firefox is the pride and joy of the Soviet Union. Capable of sustained speeds in excess of Mach 5, with radar-avoiding stealth technology and a thought-controlled weapons system, it far outclasses anything that the United States or NATO can bring to bear for the foreseeable future.
So, if you can't beat them, steal it from them, hence the dispatch of former Vietnam P.O.W. and supreme fighter pilot Mitchell Gant (Clint Eastwood) on a long-shot spy mission to infiltrate the secret Firefox testing facility. He is assisted by a band of heroic dissidents, including Upenskoy (Warren Clarke), Semelovsky (Ronald Lacey), and even the director of the Firefox program, Doctor Baranovich (Nigel Hawthorne)! Not only does Gant have to complete a mission worthy of James Bond, he then has to fly the Firefox thousands of kilometers, refuel on a speck of an ice floe, and then escape to the West, avoiding the entire military might of the U.S.S.R. in the process.
As a director, Clint Eastwood has very definite preferences in his choice of films. He clearly likes complex, often negative heroes, struggling with their lives and flaws, and, as Eastwood himself aged, fighting the very passage of time itself. That being so, it should come as a surprise to no one that Eastwood is generally not inclined to plunge himself into projects laden with special effects, preferring humanistic movies.
Special effects bonanza films pose two perils Eastwood presumably wishes to avoid: not only can the effects rival or eclipse the traditional elements of the story, but also the director is at the mercy of the effects companies. If budget constraints, time issues, or technical limitations go awry, then an otherwise decent film can be crippled! (Exhibit A: Star Trek: The Motion Picture). On the other hand, it is equally clear that amazing special effects can be icing on a wholly rotten cake. (Exhibit B: Lost In Space).
Clearly, the quality of the Firefox story drew Eastwood to take a risk. Though he seems have a positive view of the resulting film, reading between the lines seems to indicate that Eastwood was not entirely overjoyed at the journey from idea to Firefox. In the featurette on Space Cowboys with Joel Cox, who has edited over twenty of Eastwood's films, Cox relates that after Firefox, Eastwood swore never to do another special-effects movie!
On a human level, the characters and story of Firefox are clearly the reason why Clint Eastwood came aboard. His Mitchell Gant is a scarred hero, seeking to exorcise his demons, and by no means is his struggle easy or entirely successful. As he did with hapless drunk Ben Shockley in The Gauntlet, Eastwood excels in demonstrating the struggle a man to overcome his own limitations and recover from failure. We glimpse just enough of his inner demons to understand, but not so much that it detracts from the action.
Equally compelling are the valiant anti-communist dissidents—Semelovsky, Upenskoy, Baranovich, and others—who have risked their lives to help Mitchell Gant steal the Firefox. Though their individual stories are not sketched out in great detail, the murderous crimes of Stalin's Soviet legacy are reason enough to justify their espionage, particularly with the additional spectre of religious and political persecution.
Some commentators, if you will pardon the pun, feel that Firefox does not truly take off until nearly an hour and a half into the film when Gant finally steals the Firefox and the chase is on. If you are an action adrenaline junkie, or suffer from a short attention span or a lack of patience, you may very well agree. I find the build-up to the theft far more interesting. The tension slowly builds as Gant gets closer and closer to his objective, making mistakes and sweating every inch as he faces untold armies of police, military, and KGB foes. Facing the aeronautical difficulties of escaping from the U.S.S.R., refueling on an ice pack, and fighting off missiles and aircraft seem easier by comparison. At least in the cockpit of the Firefox, Gant has more control and freedom to act!
Rare among Eastwood's later films, the supporting cast of Firefox is predominantly European, and common for his films, of high caliber. Freddie Jones (Dune, Young Sherlock Holmes, The Count Of Monte Cristo), Warren Clarke (A Clockwork Orange, Dalziel and Pascoe, Greenfingers), and Nigel Hawthorne (The Madness of King George, Yes, Minister, Demolition Man) all give quality performances, with serious drama, quiet determination, and a dash of emotional zest.
If you enjoy spotting familiar faces, look for John Ratzenberger (Cheers, Toy Story) aboard Mother One, Ronald Lacey (our favorite Gestapo from Raiders of the Lost Ark) as Semelovsky, Kenneth Colley (the fortunate Admiral Piett from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) as the unfortunate Colonel Kontarsky, and Hugh Frasier (Wellington in the Sharpe series, and Hastings to David Suchet's Poirot) as the determined detective Inspector Tortyev.
Finally, I must praise Klaus Löwitsch, a German actor who has done little on this side of the Atlantic. Purely through his body language and delivery, he infuses a crafty intelligence and inner steel into General Vladimirov. When such a minor character in the final act of a film stands out, this is a testament to his actor's skill.
Proclaimed as an "all-new digital transfer" on the box, the anamorphic video of Firefox is generally good, though not quite excellent. Some blips and minor flaws in the master are to be expected, but not the strongly grainy shots that show up frequently in the aerial footage. If you omit that latter portion of the film, Firefox would have a much higher grade. Otherwise, the blacks are solid (with only a fleeting bluish tinge off to the side of the screen) and flesh tones are in the pink. Digital edge enhancement is present, but not to any sustained degree.
The remastered 5.1 audio is almost certainly an improvement over the original Dolby Surround track, but don't expect to be blown away. The sound lacks the brightness and depth of a first-class soundtrack, making it sound older than it is. Still, the remaster deftly adds some respectable usage of the rear surrounds during the escape of the Firefox.
The sole extra content worthy of comment is the 30 minute British "making of" documentary, Clint Eastwood: Director. Modern films almost always have a slickly produced PR fluff "making of" featurette, but this one is of far higher quality than most. The interviewer does not simply focus on Firefox, but touches upon Eastwood's career as actor and director. Furthermore, his questions draw Eastwood out, discussing his approach to his craft and the filmmaking process in general, as well as in Firefox.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Another reason why Gant's escape is less praiseworthy is, sadly, the special effects that John Dykstra (Star Wars, Stuart Little, Spider-Man) created. As he remarks in the documentary, matte photography, with models and strings, is a far easier process against the black of space than open skies and arctic terrain. Perhaps at the time, the Firefox effects were truly remarkable, but the passage of time (and phenomenal galactic leaps in visual technology) has not been kind to Firefox. Frankly, the Firefox, while it looks appropriately futuristic, often flies in a fashion that defies the laws of physics in ways that demand more suspension of disbelief than a whole season of Star Trek. Furthermore, the climactic fighter duel that ends the film lacks the punch of the desperate survival fight that it should be, and as it is in Craig Thomas' original novel.
Clint Eastwood fans will purchase Firefox as a no-brainer. For the rest of you, at least give Firefox a rent for a decent evening's entertainment. Alternatively, if you want to give your collection another dash of Eastwoodian charm it is far from a guilty pleasure, and reasonably ($20 list) priced.
Firefox is still a fun ride, flaws notwithstanding, and is free to go. Warner is commended for the fine technical presentation, though the snapper case and typically modest extra content remain worthy of reprimands.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Clint Eastwood: Director Documentary
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