Coogan's Bluff August 21, 2015
Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood are a filmmaking team matched in heaven. With Siegel’s life-is-savage-but-also-damned-exciting directorial point of view in one hand and Eastwood’s silently masculine persona in the other, the projects of the pair tend to come out as rough thrillers strong both behind and in front of the camera. (Their best, 1971’s Dirty Harry, is a cultural staple of the down-and-dirty police movie.) But it sometimes takes time to hit a stride, and their first partnership, 1968’s Coogan’s Bluff, is a passable, sometimes good, detective movie more safely police procedural than lip-smackingly dangerous.
Eastwood plays Coogan the same way he plays most of his other moviedom heroes: emotionless, methodical, rebellious, and of few words. A sheriff who hails from rural Arizona, it isn’t hard to outsmart criminal prey — Coogan is a governmental predator of instinct and years of hard work. His repetitious regimen is suddenly shook up, however, when he is called to New York City to extradite James Ringerman (Don Stroud), an escaped murderer recovering from a bad LSD trip. Coogan is tasked, in the meantime, to retrieve extradition papers from the Supreme Court before Ringerman pulls another punch and gets out of the law’s hands a second time.
But, alas, Coogan’s Bluff would hardly be an interesting movie if not for a little intrigue — and by throwing in a romance, a second escape, a climactic brawl, and a satisfying motorcycle chase finale, it almost comes off as strong as the other rough-and-tumble couplings of Siegel and Eastwood. But not quite.
Without a story riveting enough to make us really and truly care about the battle between good and evil (we hardly know enough about Ringerman to cause us to hunger for an eventual epic showdown with Coogan), Coogan’s Bluff defaults to gritty cop thriller mode, a smart move if things weren’t so flat. Since we can hardly rely on the excitement of foe chasing to fuel our fires, the brain expects things to go in an Odd Couple direction, the focus turning toward the unconventional relationship between Coogan and Lt. McElroy. But the latter is developed as nothing besides a snarling crank, and is hardly given enough to screen time to make an impression as anything more. So we have nothing, relying too heavily on the presence of Eastwood.
That wouldn’t be such a problem if the material weren't so been there done that. Eastwood’s usual restrained, cutthroat routine works best when it’s surrounded by a rather grandiose setting — it’s a game of complementary tug of war — but Coogan’s Bluff’s staleness gets him all dressed up with no place to go. It reportedly inspired the mega-popular 1970s series McCloud — not a surprise, considering the predictability of it all. Coogan’s Bluff is, by no means, a bad film; it’s just a well-made one without much of a personality. C+