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Do ‘Firefox’ and ‘Annie’ hold up 40 years later? — Ultimate Movie Year

Clint Eastwood (left) avoids the Soviets in ‘Firefox’ while Aileen Quinn melts hearts in ‘Annie.’ (MovieStillsDB.com)
Clint Eastwood (left) avoids the Soviets in ‘Firefox’ while Aileen Quinn melts hearts in ‘Annie.’ (MovieStillsDB.com)

“Firefox”
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Released June 18, 1982
Where to Watch

“Annie”
Directed by John Huston
Released June 18, 1982 (wide release)
Where to Watch

The decisions to release a Clint Eastwood cold war thriller and a children’s musical adaptation of a comic strip were made long before “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” opened in theaters, but as history would have it, “Firefox” and “Annie” would be the first two movies to be swept up into the cultural tsunami of the Steven Spielberg family film. Did the world miss two future classics in the craze?

It seems like a silly question to ask 40 years later. After all, several movies released before and after “E.T.” received their flowers, so to speak, at some point over the past few decades. The revered “classics” from this era share a science-fiction connection (“The Road Warrior,” “Star Trek II,” “E.T.,” “Blade Runner,” “The Thing,” “Tron”) that helped make them attractive to the audience who loved Star Wars movies and superheroes, most of whom had yet to make it to the silver screen. Given the type of movies that dominate the marketplace and cultural conversation these days, it makes sense that the loudest voices would hold up these particular films from their childhood, regardless of the quality of the product. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, of which I’m as guilty of it as most.

But “Firefox” and “Annie” don’t have that luxury. “Annie” has the virtue of being based on a comic strip and musical, so it’s a known quantity that is occasionally revived in high school auditoriums, along with television and films. Still, in a male-centric entertainment economy, you’re more likely to hear from the third-billed actor of “The Thing” talking about that movie ( 32.5 million hits on Google) than Aileen Quinn, the young star of “Annie,” reflecting upon her role ( 620,000 hits).

On paper, “Firefox” seemed to have the ingredients to be a breakout hit. It stars one of Hollywood’s most famous men, Eastwood (who also directed). It’s an of-the-moment Cold War thriller. It’s also a pro-military movie released when American films were looking to turn the page from Vietnam to something more favorable during the Reagan era. That particular pendulum would start to swing back in the other direction later in the decade, but at the moment, American optimism was on the rise.

Eastwood stars as Mitchell Gant, an ex-Air Force pilot who is living off the grid following his traumatic experiences in Vietnam. Gant is recruited back into service to infiltrate the U.S.S.R. and steal their new state-of-the-art stealth fighter jet, the Firefox. Once Gant’s inside the country, he’s aided by a few Soviet dissidents risking their lives for the mission, and Gant can barely handle himself because he knows he’s desperately in over his head. But once Gant gets inside the cockpit of the Firefox, his confidence returns as he attempts to escape the U.S.S.R. and outmaneuver his enemies.

“I had been looking for an outstanding suspense film,” Eastwood said in a 1982 interview. “This had the combination of vast, high-style adventure but also the elements of a tight suspense film.”

“Firefox” is a tense experience, particularly in the opening hour of the movie, as the constant presence of the Soviet K.G.B. feels overwhelming. Gant’s true identity is about to be discovered at any moment (although there is diffusion once Gant dons a Soviet military uniform and responds to questions in a standard Clint Eastwood way). The movie eases its tension into excitement once the action takes to the air, but sadly the special effects are of that era. Seeing the Firefox fly doesn’t have the same real-world engagement after seeing “Top Gun” four years later, and now, its dynamic 2022 sequel. With the benefit of hindsight, “Firefox” is more or less the kind of movie that combines “Top Gun” with “Mission: Impossible,” made before Tom Cruise had the clout he has now. It’s a reasonably compelling flick that holds your attention for two-plus hours.

Critics, however, were much less kind to Eastwood’s film.

“‘ Firefox’ is only slightly more suspenseful than it is plausible,” wrote Vincent Canby for The New York Times. “It’s a James Bond movie without girls, a Superman movie without a sense of humor.”

If audiences were not in the mood for Cold War politics, perhaps a light musical where a curly-haired girl attempts to dismantle the unrelenting forces of capitalism with nothing but grit, song, and a shaggy dog would be more their speed.

“Annie” was initially conceived as a newspaper comic strip, “Little Orphan Annie,” by Harold Gray that featured the daily adventures of a poor young girl interacting with a wealthy father figure, Daddy Warbucks, who has taken her in. The strip was turned into a musical in 1977, which formed the basis for the 1982 film.

In the film, we meet Annie (Quinn), still in the orphanage, continually mistreated by the center’s drunk manager, Ms. Hannigan (Carol Burnett). A secretary for Mr. Warbucks (Albert Finney) requests that Annie stay with the billionaire for a week, and Annie quickly warms his money-driven heart. However, Ms. Hannigan’s conman brother (Tim Curry) and his girlfriend (Bernadette Peters) concoct a scheme to pose as Annie’s missing parents to take Warbucks’ money for themselves.

Despite a catchy song, “Annie” is often a dull slog. The actors do everything they can, but establishing scenes tend to go on far longer than necessary. The critical character development needed to justify emotional decisions is often rushed, giving audiences little to invest in besides playing out the standard beats of the story except to see. Huston seemingly invokes the glorious staging of old Hollywood productions without the energy and vitality that make the classics pop today. Or perhaps when you mainline the modern visual storytelling and vision of early George Miller (“The Road Warrior”), Steven Spielberg (“E.T.”), Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner”), and John Carpenter (“The Thing”) one week after another, a late effort by the director of “The Maltese Falcon” couldn’t help but feel a step behind the new school of Hollywood.

“A kid with Annie’s moxie deserves more,” wrote Shelia Benson, The Los Angeles Times movie critic. “What she deserves is an atmosphere of innocence, warmth, and inventiveness to let the film generate the joy that must have enveloped theater audiences over the past five years. I somehow missed ‘Annie’ in the theater, so I can’t make comparisons, but it has an immemorial score and the thinnest of plots, so it must have had charm by the bolt to make up for it. We can only guess where the wonderment came from because there is no joy in ‘Annie’ tonight.”

“Firefox” opened with $8.1 million in its opening weekend, good enough for second place for the weekend. The film had a decent theatrical run, hanging around the top five weekend grosses for about a month and finishing with $46.7 million. “Annie,” which saw a limited release in 14 theaters on May 21, opened wide this weekend for a fifth-place finish of $5.3 million. The family musical would gross $57 million throughout the summer. Both movies would become some of the more popular films of the year, finishing just outside the top ten for 1982.

While both “Firefox” and “Annie” found their audiences to a point, reviewing them 40 years later clarifies why their average to decent quality are easily forgotten compared to the genre classics released around the same time. And while both Eastwood and Huston are two of Hollywood’s most notable directors historically, their careers behind the camera are so prolific that, again, neither movie is considered amongst their best work.

And so it seems the world got their fill of “Firefox” and “Annie,” enjoyed them for their worth, and quickly moved on to other favorites. The cable T.V. and streaming catalogs are full enough these days.

At the Box Office: Get ready for this familiar frame: “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” won the box office crown again. In its second week, the film grossed another $12.6 million, well ahead of the competition for first place.

Following “Firefox” at second, “Rocky III” remains a strong contender in the ring, earning $6.3 million in its fourth week to finish in third place. Just behind “Rocky III” is “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” earning $6.2 million in its third weekend for fourth place. “Annie” anchored the top five this weekend.

The only other wide release for the weekend was “Author! Author!” a drama starring Al Pacino that opened in seventh place with $2.2 million. The film would have a short shelf-life in theaters and cultural memories.

Next Week: “Blade Runner” and “The Thing”

Originally published at https://www.ultimatemovieyear.com on June 17, 2022.

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