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Dirty Harry Retrospective Pt. 2

Posted on September 17, 2014 at 7:15 AM

Dirty Harry Retrospective Part Two

This second and final entry of the series covers the rest of the Dirty Harry movies, as well as one that might as well haven been a Dirty Harry movie.

You can read the first part here.

*header art by Justin Reed


Sudden Impact (1983)

There's a really good movie somewhere in Sudden Impact. Right from the get-go we see a movie at odds with itself, juggling our less-interesting "main" plot with that of Harry Callahan's plot. Our "main" plot concerns Jennifer Spencer and her vigilante justice as we go into her head regarding men and flashbacks of sexual abuse and rape. Parallel to this is Harry's story of pissing off the wrong people and they out gunning for him.

It's two completely seperate things that really have nothing to do with each other. In fact, Harry doesn't even get invovled in our "main" plot until a good hour into the thing. What particularly hurts it all is that the first hour or so is some of Harry's best moments in the entire series. It's where we get him confronting a mob boss like a badass, saying "Go ahead, make my day" to a robber and shooting the hell out of a dozen people within the first hour. He’s older, grizzled and ready to get back into the mode he was in with Dirty Harry.

Plus it had a holiday release. So Merry Christmas, punk. You're get uncomfortable rape scenes in your stocking.

While some of that can be chalked up to near-parody elements and completely unrealistic scenarios for a cop Harry’s age, it's incredibly entertaining. So when we're thrust back into Jennifer Spencer's story, we practically get whiplash. Completely different tone and pacing put up against it...the movie hasn't a clue where it wants to go and only until Harry's told to go to San Paulo do they even start to intersect. It’s too bad the better, more interesting and action-packed first hour stops on a dime as Harry takes on Spencer's case (sort of, truth is he’s there for a related reason not really for her).

We're leaving San Francisco behind on top of all that too. So the gritty urban setting (which was already pretty diminished in The Enforcer) is shoved aside entirely for a small town with "yokels". I mean, did the shootouts and car-bombings of the first half of the movie take all the budget? I have to think so as it’s more action-packed that’s for sure. At least he comes into town and starts a car chase right away with a pretty classic requisition of what looks to be a church bus with angry passengers he has no choice but to use to capture the unnamed bad guy.

All that literally comes crashing into Jennifer Spencer, and she's just not that interesting of a character and her story not compelling enough to justify the rest of the movie being solely about her and Harry kind of floating around it. It occurred to me that his lack of direct involvement was telling of the conflicting plots. They wanted one thing, started with a different thing, and tried to make the two work together. It just never happens, and not having Callahan directly involved with the main plot is just foolish.

It does manager some little plot tidbits that come later on, like Harry's new gun.

It also has a serious unevenness of tone. It's simultaneously a lighter approach to Harry Callahan and his world in one way, as though he’s self-aware of his own reputation, yet at the same time deals with some pretty serious stuff in regards to Jessica's past and has Harry being a badass in the first half of the movie. I mean, we have a movie where Harry is shooting the hell out of people one minute, we follow that up with a rape scene but then Harry's given a bulldog know...plot device to meet Jessica I guess. And that bulldog pisses and….

Simultaneously, the movie tires to “make-good” for all the uneven tone it presents. It tries to repeat a few of the elements of the original Dirty Harry (the call back one liner) but unlike that, it doesn't hold any real weight or meaning behind it. When Harry gives the "Do you feel lucky?" speech in Dirty Harry, it's not just to be a badass and to say something cool. It's not a rhetorical line of dialogue, he literally puts it out there as a game of chance for both he and the bad guy and the ambiguity of whether or not Harry has extra shots or not is a part of his entire character and can make scenes play from different angles (if he knew, then why ask the question, but if he didn't, why still pull the trigger and wonder if it would go off or's an interesting game in Harry's head).

Here, the second-most-famous line, the "make my day” callback, is really just there to be cool. It might have worked the first go-around while in the diner scene and it’s about Harry’s morning routine being interrupted, but when it's called back in the finale, it isn't as relevant other than being the sake of a call back and for you to say "Oh, he said that earlier! That's his new thing!"

The first half of Sudden Impact is full of some of the best Harry Callahan moments in the series.

Thankfully, I do love the finale of Sudden Impact besides that. Harry has held back from full-on revenge mode up until now, but after getting beaten, his friend killed, his dog kicked and his woman (for lack of a better reason to have her be her own character) nearly raped a second time, he's ready to inapt some Magnum 44 justice, and go he does with a new gun and awesome lighting as they have a showdown at the abandoned amusement park. It's a tad short, but the buildup to it is so damn good.

Then it's over, and we realize we didn't really learn anything along the way. Harry lets the vigilante go, which doesn't quite work for his character that's been established (but in fairness, characters grow and learn and change) but the discussion about "justice" and "rights" falls completely flat. Despite the preaciness of the end, the message is just forced and unclear here and, more specifically, lacks the emotional empathy it strives for and desperately needed to really make the whole thing work.

Simply put, it just never gets there and we're left with loose threads (I guess Harry can go back home now...and bury his friend...and not worry about the mob after him? I guess?) and one-dimensional themes (Jennifer shows compassion momentarily, which might have opened the door again for a larger discussion about the shades of gray the movie tries to go for, but again it pushes it aside quickly) and plot holes (how does Harry know they're at the amusement park?). The film, despite some awesome moments, has the ideas but never the full package.

There's no denying that Eastwood shoots the hell out of this movie, and cinematographer Bruce Surtees, who also shot the first Dirty Harry (and a number of other Eastwood starring and directed by films), gives it a fantastic look.

The "big city cop" coming to a small town might have been good, even for a Dirty Harry flick, but it really should have started that and set the tone right from the beginning. Maybe they weren't sure where to take the mob-boss plot, or maybe the "main plot" with Jennifer wasn't enough to fill two hours and they needed some filler. Either way, Sudden Impact is a movie that has some great Harry Callahan moments and memorable scenes but no story to go along with it. If it sustained the intensity of its first half, it would have ended up as one hell of a flick. As it is, it’s still an enjoyable movie until it takes a turn for the worse and never regains its footing.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


The Dead Pool (1988 )

The Dead Pool is missing something. It's as though it has two solid acts then completely skimps on the third resulting in an underwhelming finale, dangling plot threads about a love interest and gangsters out to kill Callahan (yes again) and a film director played by Liam Neeson that feels as though it's supposed to go somewhere and then doesn't. The movie needed another turn, or a reveal, or something in between the finale and the rush to an end before it to really carry itself out.

At only an hour and a half, easily the shortest out of all the Dirty Harry movies, this all becomes more and more readily apparent. Maybe they ran of money. I could buy that, the movie certainly feels that way at times: kind of cheap and dumb with really no direction to go story-wise and a complete cop-out of a villain that's simply "he's schizophrenic" and who we barely see and really don't give a shit about. Or maybe the filmmakers, like the audience that didn't really go out to see the thing, just stopped caring.

But here's the crappy part to all this: The Dead Pool has some excellent sequences and moments. Not just action-wise, but character-wise. Callahan has yet another new partner, but this time he actual feels like a person. Al Quan is played by Evan C Kim, who really doesn't have a huge acting resume, and he's given just enough to give Quan a little bit of depth. It might be a little stereotypical, he used to be in a gang in China Town and has a history of Chinese "mysticism" with his grandfather, but at least it's something. At least when Kim delivers the lines it feels like there's something behind it.

We also see a side of Callahan that The Enforcer and even Sudden Impact desperately tried to get through but couldn't because it couldn't figure out what the angle was. Again we have a female supporting role played pretty well, but unlike the previous two films thiere's actual chemistry between Eastwood and, here, Patricia Clarkson. Interesting conversations while never having a big kiss or some sex scene to try and push it through. It works even if the character of Samantha Walker really ends up just a damsel in distress by the end. At least she had character.

And then you have Liam Neeson in one of his earliest roles, and let me tell you...he's really good here in that hammy-yet-subdued Neeson kind of way where he's doing a caricature but is so cool and calm about it that it feels natural. He's playing a sleazeball horror director and the way he has a presence in every scene, well you kind of wish his character actually went somewhere or did something. He doesn't, and it's a detriment to the entire movie. As mentioned, it's just an element. A good element. It doesn't really other words, it's a great example of The Dead Pool's parts are far better than its sum.

It may have the Liam Neesons with a pony tail, but at the same time it doesn’t really make use of the Liam Neesons!

Oh, and Jim Carrey. He's in it too lip-syncing Welcome to the Jungle on a knock-off Exorcist set for some reason.

That's sad. It really is. Harry Callahan's last romp with this 44 seemed like it would have some punch. Solid characters. A great chase sequene. A couple of good shootouts. Man, it was on to something, at least on paper, but it's as though someone went and tossed out the last 20 pages and called it a day. This is most apparent in the finale where everything just ends. Seemingly out of nowhere. Then you realize that barely and hour and a half even went by, easily the shortest of all the Dirty Harry movies..

The Dead Pool is obviously, and sometimes annoyingly, a reactionary film. By this point in the 1980s, the action movie had supplanted the hard-boiled crime thriller and this one really struggles to keep up. Eatwood stunt double-turned-director Buddy Van Horn, who had been beside Eastwood since the 1960s and directed a couple of previous Eatwood-starring flicks, seemed in over his head maybe. Having a mediocre script probably didn't help matters, but at least he shot the hell out of that chase sequence and let the scenes between Eatwood and Clarkson play out pretty naturally.

Though one might have to assume that Horn was director in name only and that Eastwood, more than likely given his reputation as a creative-minded person, had more control on the project.

As for Harry himself? Well, he's still kind of there. He's older, but he's also a helluva lot softer than what we've seen. That's fine. That's how characters grow even though there’s really no explanation to it all. We just have to assume all the dead/shot partners in the past along with a life of lonliness made him a little less hard-assed. The movie tries to do that "callback" element with the one-liner again, this time being "You're shit out of luck." Like Sudden Impact, it's pretty awesome the first time, but the callback itself, though a little better and more fitting with the context (being our bad guy is out of bullets), doesn't really have a purpose other than being a callback again.

The Dead Pool is a "what could have been" finale. Hell, when you see it, it's almost a self-referential piece of filmmaking with commentary on movie making and fans and critics and violence in cinema. It might have had something interesting to say if it actually bothered to put everything together and let the movie go on a little longer.

Instead, here we are with a dissapointing and absolutely forgettable end to it all. Hope still lingered in me - that my memory of the movie was just be not as a teenager not liking it - that maybe after the pretty mediocre previous two entries that everyone would have gotten together and say "alright, let's kick some ass" with this one. Maybe they did for a moment, and ended up with this: a poor, dated, half-hearted goodbye to a legendary film character.

Unless, you count the next one as the actual goodbye...

Final Rating: 2 out of 5


The Rookie (1990)

When all was said and done with the Dirty Harry series, Clint Eastwood starred in and directed a movie in 1990 about a hard-boiled cop in LA (instead of San Francisico) that takes on a new rookie partner, played by Charlie Sheen, and also carries a big ass gun. You also have the same person who shot The Dead Pool(Eastwood worked with him often) and a the same studio and producers as the Dirty Harry series (Eastwood’s shingle - Malpaso). At the time, people called it “Dirty Harry 5 1/2” because…well that’s essentially what it is just slight changes in location and tone.

That tone? Comedy.

Sorry… “comedy.” It kind of is, but kind of isn’t. I will say, when it works, it really works.

Well, it attempts comedy, at least. It has a lot of staples here: dark, gritty, violent, sexy, car chases, shootouts…but it’s also a buddy-cop flick about an older, veteran cop who is trying to get a handle on his rookie - in other words just about every other police flick from the time.

Around the late 1980s, it was pretty obvious that the Dirty Harry series had worn out its welcome. The Dead Pool did not do well whatsoever cricially and commericially and Eastwood and his producing partners began to notice the state of action movies by the time: the Lethal Weapon series was big, more comedy in the action was apparent and bigger set-pieces with lots of explosions and the like seemed to be the norm. Things had changed since the gritty crime thriller days of the 1970s, and Harry just wasn't holding up.

Comedy in crime-action movies was the name of the game by 1990, but comedy didn't gel with Dirty Harry all that well, hence the desire for a re-invention and tweak to the Dirty Harry formula under a new name.

So Dirty Harry was shelved, but Eastwood still wanted to play the teeth-gritting, no-nonsense cop that shot a lot of bad guys. So he and his producing partners looked to freshen it all up: the screenwriter for The Punisher, Boaz Yakin, was young and eager along with co-writer Scott Spiegel who came from the Sam Raimi camp and was coming off of Intruder.

So yes, that's a weird beginning here. A script from new writers, that's one way to get a fresh start.

Clint Eastwood was all set to direct again, perhaps hoping to redeem himself after Sudden Impact's lukewarm reception, and many from the Dirty Harry camp climbed aboard: Eastwood as director again and star and a number of his collaborators such as Jack Green from The Dead Pool (and later Unforgiven) to shoot the thing, Joel Cox from Sudden Impact and The Enforcer to edit, music from The Enforcer's Lennie Niehaus, Phyllis Huffman from The Dead Pool to cast it and, of course, Eastwood's production shingle overseeing the thing as they had done for nearly 20 years by this point. Eastwood even put his stunt-double turned director on The Dead Pool head of 2nd Unit for The Rookie.

And to really liven it all up, they got young hot actor Charlie Sheen to play opposite Eastwood. This was, even by this time, a pretty standard buddy-cop movie entry. Older cop. Younger cop. Older cop is pretty much Dirty Harry and Younger Cop is Charlie Sheen pretty much playing himself.

The result? A goddamn mess. I'll say it's not the directing, nor the acting for the most part. It's the tone of it all: the roots going back to a script that wants to be a little fun and campy yet at the same time wants to be an R-rated gritty action flick.

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But at least one of the coolest on-screen explosions is here. I Mean...this thing is gorgeous. In fact, action-wise The Rookie is pretty solid throughout.

In a way, you can look at the movie and especially the script this way: though it may not be a Dirty Harry flick, it damn sure is inspired by them. The screenwriters probably grew up watching Eastwood be a badass and maybe thought writing a version of that character, only not that character, would be pretty awesome.

Well, it is kind of awesome at times. Hell, I would venture to say Eastwood gives one of his better Callahan performances even though this isn't Callahan. At least better than The Dead Pool where it all felt lazy and half-hearted. The quips and one liners, the snark teeth-gritting grin, the fact he has a partner die and hates his new one, getting yelled at by his superiors and working off the books. Yep, it's pretty much Harry with a new name.

The fact is this is Dirty Harry and even the producers and marketing team knew it. Here we have a poster for the film showcasing Dirty Harry's 44 Magnum yet there is no 44 Magnum in this flick.

But we have to get to one major thing eventually. It's the one thing that feels incredibly weird abut The Rookie. Clint Eastwood gets raped by Sonia Braga. Well, first let's talk about Braga's character to begin with, whose name I don't think we ever get except from Raul Julia once (oh, we're getting to him) but it's listed as "Liesl." She's pretty much there to be the "muscle" and, simultaneously, be a sex object. That's it. And the rape scene kind of proves that because...well...we didn't need it and it served no purpose other than to say "this young woman is going to screw this older guy." It was a scene that really has no point to the story other than to have someone have sex with Clint Eastwood. She's not a character, she's a prop.

The scene is just uncomfortable and weird. Let's put aside the fact it serves no purpose to the story at all. Let's just look at the scene as a whole. You have Eastwood tied to a chair and Braga comes in and screws him. You aren't sure what to feel or how to take it. I remember seeing this scene when I first saw the movie 20 years ago and you know what? It still makes me uncomfortable. I think it's because Eastwood is also directing this thing, so in a way it's him doing some sort of vanity project and having a young attractive woman have sex with his character. Perhaps its that subtext that really irks me with it, or maybe it's the entire tone of the scene where she's talking and he's just tied there not saying much of anything and certainly not fighting back.

Ungh...and now I feel dirty. Let's go on to something a little happier but also a little stranger.

Hey, it's Raul Julia and...wait...he's what?

Our villain is played by the late Raul Julia, and despite him being nice and hammy and wonderfully chewing scenery at every turn, it's one of the weirdest casting decisions ever: you have one of Latin America's greatest actors playing a German. His accent is all over the place, sometimes very Raul Julia, other times seemingly a guest star off of Hogan's Heroes, but always inconsistent. Still, he's a good presence all the same and though his motivations is a very simplistic "need money" cliche, he's not horrible.

And I can't fault Julia entirely. I mean, he was kind of hot at the time playing villains so I can understand the producers wanting him. But...why not just make him, you know...not German? Why does he need to be German? Why do you have to force an accent he obviously cannot do onto the man. He can be a caricature, sure, but don't have him struggle with that. Plus look at him? What about Raul Julia screams "German" to begin with? He's a fantastic actor that could have been great here, as the character is wonderfully dispicable, but you get distracted by him choking on a bad accent. Just let the man act, he could have nailed this.

Then we have Charlie Sheen, and to be honest I can't quite tell if he's good or bad in this thing. I suppose he's middle of the road - but that's something you can say about Sheen's entire carrer to be honest. He's given a pretty stock character but doesn't really offer a lot of personality to him. He does have plenty to do, though, and there's a good chunk in the movie where it's just Sheen kicking ass left and right and looking pretty cool during the process. Sure, it's all a little wooden and "meh" on the ersonality side, but when Sheen walks into a bar and takes pretty much every biker on, followed by two more fight sequences, and you see the angst and desperation as he starts to lose himself, it all plays out pretty nicely.

Just don't ask for a lot of dialogue from him. Just hold the gun and fight.

If this was an unofficial goodbye to Dirty Harry, it's actually a damn good one. There's problems in the film overall, sure, but as far as the character goes, it's a complete circle: aging Callahan realizes he's "too old for this shit" and becomes a LT - the LT being the one thing Callahan always butted heads against.

It's a happy farewell, not to mention a passing of the torch in a way to the generation that was inspired by the likes of Callahan. I swear, if this movie ended with a crane shot and had a 44 it would 100% be a Dirty Harry flick. As it's probably about a 80-85% of one.

Note: an average one. So 80% of an average Dirty Harry flick, but one with a solid set of action, certainly above Dirty Harry standards, not that the standards overall are too high here, we're going with...ummm...oh why not. It's a fun flick.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5


Dirty Harry as a figure of cinema and a character we all know and can quote endlessly, it seems, had his time in the sun. It was brief, though, as each film seemed to dwindle the mystique and persona of Harry Callahan more and more up to the point of needing to “reboot” the whole thing with The Rookie.

In other words, Harry Callahan is a better character than most of the movies he’s actually in. The first two are fantastic, Sudden Impact at least solid albeit extremely uneven and everything else pretty mediocre and forgettable. The thing that always made it consistent, though, was Eastwood who, obviously, enjoyed the role a great deal.

But I think the one thing that is great about all of these movies is how they trace the decades they were made in. The style and themes, the characterization of Callahan that got a little softer over the years as the culture shifted from the frustrated 1970s to the looser 1980s. Biogtry, a distain towards authority, racism, sexism, love of excess with the 80s…these movies reflect the time they were made for better or worse. Sometimes you applaud the hard-boiled nature of it all, then cringe and the pandering of blaxploitation. Or you’ll love it when Harry cuts those one-liners…but then kind of cringe again when you realize what he kind of stands for in terms of "kill-first, ask questions later.”

The first two films are classics because they don’t feel obligated to deal with a lot of the issues that the later films wanted to deal with that kind of dates them. Though Dirty Harry and Magnum Force are certainly not timeless, they deal with plots and characterization that are and don’t get bogged down trying to reflect society as much as The Enforcer did with gender roles or The Dead Pool with fame obsession of the 80s.

Those two are legit, grounded, gritty cop thrillers that you simply can’t make anymore. Even if the ideas they deal with are timeless, the approach is not. Today, you get some flashes here and there, but it’s rare. I suppose the days of a Dirty Harry or French Connection, or even a Die Hard for that matter, are long gone. Studios assume people don’t want them anymore. Maybe we don’t. Maybe if a movie was made in the vein of those today it would play less as an original exciting film and more as just an imitation.

Truth is, I’d wish they would prove me wrong. Now I could easily add in a quip here - throw in one of those Harry Callahan one liners, but I won’t. Instead, do yourself a favor and give the first two films a watch. If they totally make your day you may or may not be shit out of luck in watching the remaining movies. I suppose if you feel lucky, you’ll enjoy them well enough for what they are, but I won’t be the enforcer to getting you to see them.

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