Where literal law enforcement and the legal ramifications of rebellious attitudes come into play, it would be right to consider Ben Shockley as a below-average agent. He is the long arm of the law playing by his own useless rules. Audiences have seen that before, and likely with Clint Eastwood at the wheel. A Jack Daniels drinking drunkard, littering the streets with empty bottles and scowling faces, that is what Eastwood brings to The Gauntlet. An interesting feature not just for how it perceives the role of the law, but how the maverick hotshots that bend the rules to their whim are far from the rebellious heroes they see themselves to be.
Quite simply, Eastwood’s direction puts Shockley through hell and drags him down to what is expected of law enforcement. He should have better clothes, he should have shaved, he surely shouldn’t have been drinking before a meeting with the commissioner. Where other films may bring those out as opportune character context for the smooth-talking beast in the leading role, The Gauntlet presents a man unsure of himself. He is easily swayed by Gus Mally (Sondra Locke) and buys into her thought process. She’s at “the gate,” and infers there is some link between her and Shockley, and a horse he fails to bet on. But like that dangerous, underdog horse, both Mally and Shockley make for a surprising, rag-tag duo. They have great chemistry and share many scenes of delightful action, spinning their way through the streets in a stolen ambulance.
Never one to shy away from the violence inherent to this style of storytelling, The Gauntlet offers great shootouts and moments of sudden panic. Shockley finds himself in the middle of shootouts of his own making, his own dense decision-making leading him through moments of terrible danger that could have been avoided if cooler heads had prevailed. He kidnaps cops, takes a run at the world beyond the law, and soon Eastwood finds his way into an accidental, Bonnie and Clyde-like scenario. Shockley and Mally may be freewheeling heroes of the road, but the doubts they have about their actions and their goals is the sting in the tail. They are now inseparable, not because they love one another or believe they can make it, but because they are in over their heads and have no way of getting out. Brilliant performances mark that well, and Eastwood’s direction is stunning, seeing him shift rather comfortably away from the Sergio Leone-influenced westerns of his earlier period.
A sharp suit and an ugly attitude guide The Gauntlet to surprising levels of success. Far more conclusive and entertaining than Dirty Harry, but that may be because the hero at the heart of this story is beyond caring. His harsh and frank way of speaking is leagues beyond that of the smarmy anti-hero style. What could have been a pairing of Steve McQueen and Barbara Streisand instead turns darker and grimmer with Eastwood’s incredible, sharp-suited character and the understated powerhouse Locke presents with her rendition of Mally. They do not kill, or at least, they do not try to initially. They’re on the run from their own problems. Drifters who did have something to achieve, but cannot now that they’re off the trail. Love ruins them, but Eastwood is keen to showcase their redemption toward the end. They may be wildly free, but they wish for the sweet embrace of etiquette and socially acceptable living. It is their realisation of never having it so good that guides them back.