Clint Eastwood can't be accused of going soft in "The Gaunlet." Not all at once anyway. There are mellowing tendencies in this new Eastwood shoot-'em-up, and I think they ought to be welcomed and encouraged. If "The Gauntlet" improves on East-wood's customary box-office success. I hope it will be ascribed to the glimmers of old-fashioned romatic devotion and the expression of support for middle-class stability and respectability that have been allowed to miligate the usual nihilistic mayhem.
If Eastwood is edging toward a more mellow action formula, he covers his retreat with more than enough firepower. Chunk Gaspar, the special effects supervisor, reportedly had $1 million to play around with, and he appears to have spent at least half that generous allowance on blank ammunition.
The audience is regaled by three separate, protracted fusillades in which a house, a car and a bus are shot full of holes. These spectacles are reminiscent of demolition derbies or fund-raising events.
"The Gauntlet" is engineered to provide a vicarious release for destructive impulses, but for plot purposes, the big action sequences remain uncoordinated. At once gaudy but gratuitous, they resembles producing numbers than necessary climatic episodes in this particular chase thriller which finds seedy lawman Eastwood being played for a patsy by a crooked superior when assigned to escort a witness, hooker Sondra Locke, from Las Vegas to Phoenix.
Although love is destined to bloom between these characters with such traditional radiance that Eastwood will by buying a dozen roses for his hard-bitten new girl and confiding his dream of settling down and having kids, the ingratiating cop-out is always obscured by a disreputable tease. Eastwood and Locke go at each other like a pair of harpies when first introduced.
He slaps her around and snarls such endearments as, "For two cents and a stick of gum I'd kick the - out of you." Locke gets to hurl insults especially and facetiously calculated to abuse Eastwood's macho image. "You really get off roughing up girls, don't you?" she asks, rhetorically. "Forty-five caliber fruit!"
The text by screenwriters Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack has a distinctive trashy gusto and some serviceable melodramatic momentum. Vicious and hypocritical as it is, "The Gauntlet" remains an entertaining sort of disreputable show, considerably more proficient and interesting than junk melodramas in a dogged vein, like the new Charles Bronson vehicle, "Telefon."
Eastwood himself directed, and the film has a remarkably clean, spacious visual design, presumably encouraged by Eastwood and executed by cinematographer Rexford Metz. Eastwood seems to have a pictorial sense. What muddies up his films are failures of taste and judgement connected with the plot development and the exploitation of his own image - or his mixed motives about what that image should be.
He doesn't seem to realize that one shot with an emotional impact - the sniper's bullet that hits a decent cop played by Pat Hingle - means more than a million rounds expended for the picturesque hell of it all. Eastwood also blows the opportunity to unite the hero and his fellow officers against their crooked bosses at the climax. Electing to dump on the other cops, he sacrifices an emotional bond for another shooting spree. It's the wrong choice, but there's enough ambiguity under the violent skin of "The Gauntlet" to suggest he could make the right one sooner or later.