A Man’s Got to Know his Limitations
‘Firefox’ is a strange blend of ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ and ‘Star Wars’ that fails at either being a paranoid nail biter of a spy story or a fetishistic techno-thriller because Clint Eastwood clearly had no clue how either genre works.
Imagine a Michael Mann film about a secret Princess, or a Sidney Lumet Sword and Sorcery Flick. Imagine Sam Peckinpah directing a screwball comedy, or Stanley Kubrick making a sequel to ‘Caddyshack’. Picture Sylvester Stallone penning and lensing an English drawing room comedy of manners. Jane Campion making a male oriented special forces action flick...
Eastwood is, in my opinion, a fairly limited film maker whose real talent was a good eye for properties, a keen eye for character actors and a willingness to let his thespians make ‘moments’ in his films. Think back to any classic Eastwood flick, and you remember those moments when he lets his cast treat Eastwood as the straight man counterpart to their monologues. This works for Westerns and crime dramas, which are primarily about confrontations and character moments, but fails spectacularly in subtle paranoid espionage films and in high tech gizmo thrillers.
What both genres require is a flair for exposition. You can get away with dropping the audience in the middle of a western with no introduction. We’re all familiar with the basic tropes and archetypes of the western story. Same with a typical rogue cop thriller or a story about a hardassed marine, and his goofy recruits. Artful exposition, however, is absolutely essential for bringing an audience up to speed with the world of cloak and dagger, and bleeding edge military technology.
In ‘Firefox’ Eastwood treats the film like a 1970s low budget police potboiler. Most of the details concerning Eastwood’s past can only be determined after that fact based on circumstantial evidence. His character, ex-Vietnam airforce major Mitchell Grant, is brought out of some kind of idyllic retirement in the Alaska Wilderness to sneak into Russia using a complex dissident network, and steal a brand new Russian fighter jet that’s invisible to radar and can fly at Mach 6. He’s chosen because he has the same build as the Russian test pilot, and he can speak Russian.
The first problem with the film is that nobody involved with the production figured out when Russian’s are supposed to talk with Russian accents, and when they’re supposed to talk Russian with subtitles. Some scenes are subtitled and in some scenes, they speak with Boris accents and Eastwood doesn’t even bother with that in his performance. He seemed content to act as if nobody in the Soviet Union would notices Dirty Harry wandering around their country. A drama set in Russia could get away with this, but not an espionage film. Even ‘The Great Escape’ got a lot of mileage out of the pitfalls of going incognito in a foreign land with a feigned foreign tongue. Here the inconsistency speaks of laziness and a style better suited for a film about a trucker and his best bud orangutan.
Taking away the threat of language betraying the infiltrator, ‘Firefox’ becomes a film about Soviet Jewish dissidents risking their lives to speed the downfall of the oppressive U.S.S.R. followed by Top Gun style fighter-jet action. Imagine if the X-Wing attack in Star Wars had occurred after Obi Wan dies of gunshot wounds, looking into the eyes of his dead wife who sacrificed for a cause.
It’s even more ridiculous when Clint Eastwood just strolls over to an experimental Soviet fighter jet and steals it with all the urgency of a guy taking an idling dump truck out of a construction on a dare. He seems to know how to operate this jet that he’s never flown before, where the instructions are in a foreign language with no difficulty operating the thought based weapon’s system or getting a feel for the flight dynamics. In a mid-80s canon film with Chuck Norris, this would be part of the show, but it looks preposterous after a grimly realistic cloak and dagger action that precedes it.
The final act of ‘Firefox’ is one long dog fight between Eastwood and a Soviet Pilot in fictional MIG-31s over icy arctic landscapes. The sci-fi thriller spectacle of the fight is undercut by scenes featuring old men repeatedly narrating the action as if he were presenting slides at an association of tax accountants. Eastwood’s heart just isn’t in the spectacle of supersonic jets in combat, which is ironic because the special effects department knew what kind of film ‘Firefox’ was supposed to be, even if Eastwood didn’t.
The models for the fictional MIG-31 Firefox of the film’s title was clearly designed by people with a Tom Clancy like appreciation for the fine products of the Military Industrial Complex. With its’ long fuselage, forward canards and double-delta wings, the model planes bear a close resemblance to never built Mach 3 fighter-interceptor concepts from the 1960s, but shaped with an eye for stealth. The production department had clearly studied the theory of low radar visibility reflected in the internal weapons bays and baffled engine air-intakes so that their mockup looks like it was ready for a mid-80s next generation fighter presentation. Hell, take the full scale mockup they constructed for the film and bring it to defense industry trade show for next generation stealth fighters and it still wouldn’t look out of place. Like with Robocop II, this is an example of the special effects department granting the film a deeper artistic resonance than it actually deserves.
The other problem is that Clint Eastwood is never, for a single moment, believable as a man who could infiltrate a cold-war era Soviet Union. Never an actor of any great range, his face, his walk, his squint, his voice, his gestures and even his choice of inflections just screams silent generation American male. The rest of the cast is made up of solid character actors who would seem right at home in an Ipcress File movie. They look and sound passably Russian, which brings even more attention to how incongruous Eastwood is in the Le Carre segments. He looks as out of place as Dolph Lundgren would look in a drama about the IRA, or The Rock in an Edward Albee play as a put upon alcoholic.
Compare ‘Firefox’ to ‘The Hunt for Red October’ to see the difference between a competent techno-thriller and a film that could use a goofy orangutan to liven it up.