In 1982 Clint Eastwood had to re-invent himself again. Although he had massive success with Every Which Way But Loose (1977) and Any Which Way You Can (1981) and increased his fan base considerably, smartarse western characters weren’t as popular in the eighties as they had been in the seventies (Burt Reynolds career, apart from a few bright sparks, never really recovered). Eastwood chose to go hi-tech. The result was Firefox, an espionage thriller based on the novel by Craig Thomas.
Briefly, the film concerns Mitchell Gant (Clint Eastwood), a Russian born retired USAF pilot. Because he was born in Russia, he thinks in Russian, rather than thinks in English and then transposes it (if you know what I mean?). Why is this important? The Russians have just developed a new war plane, the MIG 31, codenamed: Firefox. The plane is the most advanced ever built, and features a thought controlled weapons system, can travel at Mach 6, and is invisible to radar. Naturally enough, the West is very eager to get their hands on this aircraft. There plan is to steal it. And that is where Mitchell Gant comes in. His Russian background makes him the perfect candidate to attempt the theft of this fantastic new weapon. There is a slight problem though. Gant suffers from a severe stress disorder, which cause him to blackout. This is the legacy of his days as a pilot in Vietnam. Apparently he was shot down and captured by the Vietcong.
Despite this disorder, the Agency behind this mission, decide to proceed, and Gant is launched into a whirlwind training regime. His controller is Kenneth Aubrey, played by veteran British character actor, Freddie Jones. Jones’ eyebrows, which have a character of their own, almost steal the movie from Eastwood.
After his training, Gant is sent off on his mission, which he knows very little about. His first port of call is Moscow. From there he is guided along by a network of dissidents and sympathizers until he finds his way to Bilyarsk, a military post where the Firefox is housed.
Firefox is a film that time has changed. I am not saying that it is better now than it was then. But it is different. But to understand how it has changed, first you must understand that it is a film of two very distinct halves. The first half is a Cold War spy story, and has a KGB – Big Brother is watching – style feel. The scenes are mostly shot at night, and are very claustrophobic.
The second half of the film is after Gant has stolen the MIG 31 plane and is racing through the clear blue skies. This is where the special effects and pyrotechnics take over.
Now, back to my point about the film having changed with time. When Firefox was released at the cinema in 1982, it was really at the tail end of a cycle of spy films. The first half, with it’s Cold War, Harry Palmer wannabe ethos, was very tired an dated. Many people considered it downright boring. The second half, however, was cutting edge visual effects, courtesy of Richard Dykstra, who had worked on Star Wars. When the Firefox flew through the Ural mountains and clouds of snow erupted into the air, there was a real feeling of speed and power.
But here we are in the next century and twenty five (plus) years have passed since the Firefox flew, and special effects have leapt forward at a tremendous rate. The models used in Firefox look rather ‘fake’ today. The whole airplane chase seems rather small and unimpressive.
But now that the Iron Curtain has come down, the Cold War story seems far more interesting. The world is a very different place. Now, the first half seems like a solid, good old fashioned, espionage thriller (the type that they don’t make anymore). I may be being a little generous in my appraisal there, but none-the-less, the passing years have freshened up the start of this movie.
Does that make Firefox a good film? I’m afraid not. However you look at it, then or now, the sum of it’s two distinct parts do not add up.
The character, Mitchell Gant, would turn up in a few more novels by Craig Thomas. These are the ones that I am aware of:
• Firefox Down (1983)
• Winter Hawk (1987)
• A Different War (1997)
And another character, Kenneth Aubrey (Gant’s controller), also has appeared in numerous novels.