Ben Shockley (Clint Eastwood) is a Phoenix cop who is already over the hill; that one big case that could have made him a captain just never turned up. He is given an apparently simple task to carry out: go to Las Vegas, pick up a prisoner who was a crime witness, and escort him back to Phoenix. However, when he arrives at the Las Vegas jail, there's a little confusion, as the prisoner, Gus Malley, isn't a man, but a foul mouthed woman (Sondra Locke). She is a prostitute who claims that to go to Phoenix will see her killed, but Shockley is sceptical until he sees odds on a betting board that might be for a horse race - but might also be for the likelihood of Malley's demise. Could she be telling the truth?
Written by Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack, The Gauntlet is seen as a minor entry in Eastwood's directorial catalogue, but nevertheless has a fair amount to recommend it. On the surface it's as dumb as its cop protagonist, yet go beyond that impression and it provides an interesting take on the seventies action hero, accompanied by a plethora of chases, flying bullets and explosions. Not only that, but the film serves as a pretty decent road movie, as Shockley and Malley, arguing all the while, of course, are forced to go on the run to escape crooked cops and the influence of the Mob.
Once Shockley becomes suspicious, he makes arrangements for a hire car to take him and his charge to the airport. He then grows even more suspicious when the hire car blows up, just as they were about to get into it. After that it's non-stop mayhem, with the couple predictably putting aside their differences to team up and even fall in love - it's that It Happened One Night dynamic all over again, this time with excessive violence. Initially, Malley (Locke really shines in her role) has nothing but contempt for the bemused cop, and in fact, every policeman she meets, as she's not sure who is out to get her - or so she claims.
Shockley is certainly not Dirty Harry, but Eastwood brings humour to the muscleheaded patsy. He is constantly undercut by the plot or the other characters, whether it's Malley yelling insults at him ("Prick!" "Fruit!"), or his boss (William Prince) taking advantage of him because of his general underachievment. Shockley takes a while to catch on to what is happening, even after the house he stopped by in is destroyed by police gunfire, but all this deftly ensures that we underestimate him, so that when he starts getting his act together it's all the more impressive.
If there's one thing that makes The Gauntlet stand out it's the extreme nature of the action sequences. It's not enough to have the two fugitives shot at by one man, oh no, they have to be shot at by ten, fifty, a hundred, from either side of the law: the difference between the men of the police and the Mob is deliberately blurred. That aforementioned house is leveled with Shockley still in it, the cop who they force to drive them to the state line is murdered in a hail of bullets, and a chase between a motorbike and a helicopter seems to last about half an hour.
As is usual in Eastwood films, his character is given a harsh beating, this time by the Hell's Angels he stole the bike from, and this is yet another of his movies with a rape scene. Most famously, the finale sees Shockley and Malley driving an armoured bus with about 99% of the Phoenix police force shooting at them, which looks absolutely ridiculous, but strangely satisfying in its overkill. The Gauntlet may not be everybody's all-time favourite Eastwood thriller, but it has many, broadly funny moments, the two stars are ideal together, it's distinctively over the top, and nobody does that pissed off and incredulous expression quite like Clint. Jazzy score by Jerry Fielding.
Becoming a superstar in the late 1960s gave Clint Eastwood the freedom to direct in the seventies. Thriller Play Misty for Me was a success, and following films such as High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales showed a real talent behind the camera as well as in front of it. He won an Oscar for his downbeat Western Unforgiven, which showed his tendency to subvert his tough guy status in intriguing ways. Another Oscar was awarded for boxing drama Million Dollar Baby, which he also starred in.
Also a big jazz fan, as is reflected in his choice of directing the Charlie Parker biopic Bird. Other films as director include the romantic Breezy, The Gauntlet, good natured comedy Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man, White Hunter Black Heart, The Bridges of Madison County, OAPs-in-space adventure Space Cowboys, acclaimed murder drama Mystic River, complementary war dramas Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima and harrowing true life drama Changeling. Many considered his Gran Torino, which he promised would be his last starring role (it wasn't), one of the finest of his career and he continued to direct with such biopics as Jersey Boys and American Sniper to his name.