Review for Firefox / Heartbreak Ridge
This time last year, I had finally got around to watching the then cheap German import Blu-ray of Firefox, and had been struck by a tsunami of disappointment, at discovering that in my eagerness to own this Cold War era guilty pleasure, I had bought the International Theatrical Cut, when what I wanted was the US Domestic Theatrical Cut, itself often broadcast on UK TV. And back then, that particular Blu-ray was only available in a twin pack with Heartbreak Ridge that I had to import from the US. Firefox is not the greatest movie ever made, but the International Cut guts all the interesting character development from the film, making it wholly irredeemable. Hopefully this US release will restore it to my ‘guilty pleasure’ shelf, and Heartbreak Ridge will offset its cheesy naffness for everyone else.
You get two discs in a thin BD Amaray eco-case, with bits cut out of the plastic.
Introduction: Firefox (136:21)
In the continuing arms race between East and West, intelligence services have discovered that the Soviet Union has stolen a march on the West. In the space of a few years, they’ve developed a fighter plane with a top speed of Mach 6, invisible to radar, and with a thought guided weapon system. It can out-fly and out-fight anything that the West has by a factor of two to one, and if the Soviets can mass produce it, it will change the balance of power forever. There’s no way the West can catch up, not unless they steal one.
The right opportunity is about to present itself during a test flight. All that the intelligence services need to do is get the right man into the cockpit at the right time. The right man turns out to be Vietnam veteran Mitchell Gant, a man who is burnt out, and suffering from PTSD. But, his mother was Russian, he speaks the language like a native, and more importantly, he fits the flight suit.
The Disc: Firefox
The film gets a 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p transfer on the disc, but unlike the European release, the only audio on the disc is DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround English, with English, French, and Spanish subtitles. The image is adequate, certainly good enough for HD in brighter scenes. The detail levels are good, there is a filmic layer of grain, exaggerated during flashback sequences, and for 1982, the effects are really quite good, aside from one obviously rear-projected Red Square moment. For this film John Dykstra figured out how to do arctic flying sequences without matte lines (compare to the Hoth sequences in The Empire Strikes Back). The problem comes in darker scenes, where black crush is prevalent, detail is lost, and it’s hard to make out anything at all (compared to my VHS sourced TV broadcast copy, this was made even more apparent). There’s no real difference between the UK and US discs when it comes to the visuals. The audio is fine, the dialogue is clear, and the 5.1 mix does the stereo source justice, giving it a bit more space to breathe, but not doing anything too extravagant with the sound.
You’ll find the trailer on the disc, which lasts 2:27 SD.
Of much more interest is the Clint Eastwood – Director featurette, which lasts 29:57 SD. This serves as a profile for the director, as well as a behind the scenes, making of, for the film. It’s really quite interesting to watch, certainly more so than the film on this disc.
Firefox is still a bad film. Nothing is ever going to fix that, and the big draw to it back in 1982, the special effects, is actually the biggest drawback to it now. Once the final act begins, it’s an exercise in increasing tedium until the snoozeworthy climax. But, compared to the hack and slash of the International Theatrical Cut that I reviewed before, the US Domestic version has a level of continuity and coherent character development that at least makes it hold my interest. The Cold War espionage element, the cat and mouse game between East and West makes a lot more sense, and this version of Firefox can take its rightful place on my guilty pleasure shelf.
Unlike the International Theatrical Cut, this version of Firefox really does develop the characters, and reveals its story in a more satisfactory manner, beginning with Mitchell Gant’s recruitment and training. The dialogue does make it clear that there was a three month gap between his recruitment and the start of his mission, but here we actually see what he did during those three months.
Once the action moves to Russia, when Gant arrives in Moscow with an assumed identity, we get a far more coherent picture of the Soviet investigation into his alias, Leon Sprague, the suspected drug smuggler, and the investigation into the suspected foreign intelligence network in Bilyarsk, and the threat to the MIG 31, and the gradual realisation that both investigations are one and the same. You really do get the tension as it seems that Gant is barely staying one step ahead of his pursuers all his way to Bilyarsk.
This version of the film also makes a lot more of the politicking and brinkmanship going on in the higher echelons of the Politburo after the prototype is stolen, and you get a better idea of the personalities in the impromptu war room, moving pieces around a figurative chessboard trying to retrieve or destroy the plane.
All of this makes this version of Firefox a lot more watchable than the version that we get in Europe. There’s enough in the characters and the story to hold the attention, and the cold war espionage storyline still has its charms, even if so many other films did it better. But that attention begins to wane once the human element of the story diminishes, and the special effects take centre stage. I can just about make it to Gant’s refuelling point in the Arctic Ocean, struggling just as hard as the Firefox to stay airborne, but past that point, for the film’s final ten minutes and that final dogfight, I crash harder than any plane in this film, and I’m off to the land of Nod. Not that it matters, as it’s the first two acts of Firefox that I really enjoy.
Introduction: Heartbreak Ridge (129:56)
Gunnery Sergeant Tom “Gunny” Highway is an experienced marine on the verge of retirement, with a long career of accolades blighted by personality conflicts and issues with authority. But he’s somehow got posted back to the Marines, to get a recon squad fighting fit, and finish his career on a high. But this particular recon squad are a bunch of layabouts, more intent on an easy life. Gunny may be a veteran of several theatres of war, including Korea, Dominica and Vietnam, but there are no wars to be fought these days. He’ll have to bring the war to recon squad to get them motivated, and his superiors tell him that his antiquated methods have no place in the modern US Marine Corps. But that’s nothing compared to the effort he’ll have to put into reconcile with his ex-wife Aggie. And meanwhile, there’s trouble brewing in Grenada.
The Disc: Heartbreak Ridge
Heartbreak Ridge gets a 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p transfer with DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround English, and Dolby Digital 2.0 French, Spanish, German and DD 1.0 Italian with subtitles in these languages and Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish. This is one of those ‘grab whatever print you can find and bung it on a disc’ transfers. It’s clear enough for the most part, with fairly rich colours, detail levels are adequate, but it’s a bit soft and quite flat. Shadow detail is very lacking, and blacks are strongly crushed. There is a whole lot of grain, and the print has signs of age in terms of dirt flecks and a bit of minor damage, scratches and the like too. The English surround is fair, does the action justice, but the dialogue is buried in the mix, not helped by Gunny’s raspy voice. I also had some issues with the sync drifting in a couple of scenes. It’s a pity that the original stereo track isn’t on this disc.
Extras: Heartbreak Ridge
The disc boots to a static menu, and the sole extra on the disc is the theatrical trailer, (2:43 SD).
Conclusion: Heartbreak Ridge
Heartbreak Ridge is entertaining, and it is a satisfying watch, which is good, as trying to categorise it is really quite baffling. The one thing you can say is that it is a product of its time, an eighties movie, where things like genre or target demographics were less important to filmmakers. Heartbreak Ridge is an action movie, a war movie quite clearly after all, a squad of marines undergo gruelling training, and wind up being tested under fire. But Full Metal Jacket this ain’t. It’s also a comedy, once when it comes to its rather ridiculous characters, and once again when it comes to the character dynamic between Gunny Highway and the squad that he’s training. This film is Police Academy with a lot more grit and realism. And it’s a romance too.
It’s really bizarre to see a film made in 1986, where Clint Eastwood plays a protagonist having to deal with the imminence of age and obsolescence, as Gunny Highway aims to make one final contribution to the service that he has devoted his life to. It feels as if Eastwood has been playing variations on that character for forty years or so, almost half his life. Here Gunny is a man being retired before his time, still stronger, faster, and sharper than any of the whelps that he’s training, but whose archaic approach to service is out of touch with the modern, bureaucratic military. He’s a sergeant who will use live fire to motivate his men during training, whereas his superior is a textbook soldier from the academy, who’s more concerned with balancing the ledger and making himself look good by whatever means.
In this Marine Corps, the Recon Squad are the designated losers, and they’ve come to live down to those expectations, spending most of their time lying around or looking for an easy life. In comes Gunny Highway and proceeds to make their lives hell, all to get them into shape and give them back their self respect when it comes to the rest of the Marines. It’s an instant clash of attitudes and ‘war’ is declared, as they decide to find a way to get rid of Gunny. In this military Police Academy, Corporal Stitch Jones, played by Mario van Peebles is the Mahoney, although their antagonistic relationship is set up beforehand when they first meet on a bus on the way to the camp, and all that Gunny knows is that Stitch is a rather obnoxious, wannabe rock star. But slowly antagonism turns to respect, as the Recon Squad realise that they are becoming better soldiers, and all of that is put to the test in the film’s conclusion.
At the same time, Gunny is trying to rekindle things with his ex-wife Aggie, who has moved on in this time and got engaged to someone else. She got tired of his macho marine crap, but he’s trying something new; reading women’s magazines to get a better understanding of the opposite sex, and to get in touch with his feelings. It doesn’t quite work.
Heartbreak Ridge works, but it really shouldn’t. It’s a mishmash of styles and genres, comical one minute, serious the next, and at 130 minutes, it should feel like a chore, but once again it doesn’t. I enjoy it each time I see it. The characters have energy, the pacing is brisk, and the bawdy comedy still works really well. This Blu-ray is rather disposable though. No effort was made to give the film a decent transfer, and if you have the film in your DVD collection, I wouldn’t bother double-dipping.
So there you have it, two Clint Eastwood ‘war’ movies in a flimsy case, and not much else. Firefox should have worked, adapted from a bestselling Cold War thriller, but it didn’t. Heartbreak Ridge’s genre mishmash on the other hand shouldn’t have worked, but it still does. Yet I find that both are really guilty pleasures of mine.