(In French, On TV, November 2018) Each Dirty Harry movie gets worse and worse, and The Dead Pool marks not only the end of the series, but the cul-de-sac in which its increasing self-parody could lead. As the film begins, Harry Callahan has become enough of a celebrity that he qualifies for inclusion in a municipal death pools—that is, predictions on whether he will soon die. The plot gets going once someone decides to hasten his demise, motivated by overall psychopathy and revenge. Clint Eastwood sports yet another hairdo here, and I can’t underscore how weird it feels to see Callahan’s character in the firmly established 1980s: He’s such a creation of the 1970s that it just feels wrong to see him compose with the worst clichés of the decade, including Guns’n’Roses. (Sudden Impact, the fourth film of the series was indeed set in the eighties, but its small-town setting and early-decade product means that it still felt like the seventies.) It gets worse once you see Callahan interact with up-and-coming actors that would achieve notoriety a decade later: pay attention, and you’ll see Jim “James” Carrey, Liam Neeson and Patricia Clarkson (looking like Natasha McElhone!) in supporting roles adding to the weirdness. Mind you, the film has enough contemporary weirdness on its own—Callahan is here written as a self-parody, fully indulging in the worst traits of his character. The nadir of the entire Dirty Harry cycle can be found in the silly car chase featuring… an explosive remote-controlled car. (Nobody will be surprised to find out that Callahan’s car does not survive the film, as noticed by the characters. And we won’t bring up what happens to Callahan’s partners.) The Dead Pool feels like an overextended joke, a wholly useless entry in a constantly declining series. Amusingly enough, it’s not even included in many of the Dirty Harry compilations on the market, which should tell you enough about it.
(On DVD, April 2018) Every entry in the Dirty Harry series has been a small but perceptible notch below the previous one, and Sudden Impact is no exception. By this time, the series has devolved in a near-parody of the character, as Callahan goes around shooting criminals and causing heart attacks with the film chugging along approvingly. It’s an excuse for Harry to get out of town, though and before long he’s out of the familiar San Francisco frame and stuck in a small seaside town where there’s a serious serial killing spree going on. Which brings us to the real story of the film, about a sexual assault victim taking revenge upon her aggressors, and Harry being dropped in the middle of that plot. In some ways, Sudden Impact is what happens when a serious (serious isn’t incompatible with exploitative) crime drama gets taken over by a franchise character tourist. Suddenly, Harry and his dog are in the middle of a story that could very well have been told without them. The clash is rather interesting to watch—at times, far more than taking Harry at face value as he gets a bigger gun, one less partner and even fewer enemies at the end of the film than at the beginning. Clint Eastwood is imperturbable as Harry Callahan—he also directs in a matter-of-fact fashion, and gives the lead female role to his then-long-time partner Sondra Locke, who’s actually quite intriguing in an unconventional way here. The result is misshapen, often ugly, not quite respectable and definitely another step down in the series, but those watching the Dirty Harry series box set will feel as if they got their money’s worth out of Sudden Impact.
(On DVD, April 2018) Third entry in the Dirty Harry series, The Enforcer is clearly running on autopilot, much of the film being a copy of previous material bordering on self-caricature. Callahan himself is introduced in gosh-wow fashion, first ending a liquor store robbery through excessive property damage, and then having a few regressive choice words about affirmative action once he’s asked to participate in a board to hire female police officers. (One of them is assigned as his partner. You can imagine the rest.) Once reassured that we’re dealing with the stock image of Harry Callahan, the film then goes through the motions of a stock plot involving domestic terrorists and half-heartedly ties it to a criminal project. There’s a detour through black militantism that feels just this ride of outright racism, although it’s often hard to distinguish between the series’ reactionary bend and the overall attitude of the time. The result, though, remains a half-hearted success at best—while the atmosphere of mid-seventies San Francisco is interesting, the film itself is by-the-numbers and leans too heavily on violence and dispensing of its most interesting character as a motivation for Callahan. Every film in the Dirty Harry series is a bit worse than its predecessor, and The Enforcer starts straddling the line between acceptable and forgettable.
(On DVD, April 2018) Considering how the first Dirty Harry movie made nearly everyone uncomfortable with how it glorified the vigilantism of its protagonist, there is something almost hilarious to see sequel Magnum Force try to distance itself from this position by pitting Harry Callahan against even worse rotten cops. From the first few moments of the film, with a credit sequence lovingly focus on the titular gun, it’s clear that this sequel regrets nothing and doubles-down on its assets. (Unsurprisingly, it was written by noted gun aficionado John Milius.) Here an entire group of killer cops is uncovered and while Callahan does get a few choice words about their methods, the film wants you to know and understand and appreciate that he’s nothing like those killer cops because reasons, that’s why. Or rather Callahan will gun down those that he determines to be bad rather than being told by some other guy. Or something. Perhaps it’s better to pretend that Callahan is the good guy and appreciate what he does in order to catch the designated bad guys. To be fair, Magnum Force does have its moments. The film isn’t as polished as the mean thrills of the original, but it does have Clint Eastwood (always an asset), Hal Holbrook as a no-fun superior antagonist, a detecting sequence that sees Callahan in a shooting contest with his enemies, and an interesting motorcycle chase climaxing on an aircraft carrier. The atmosphere of mid-seventies San Francisco is always worth a look even though the film itself is hum-drum. Magnum Force does build upon the first movie, though, so you might as well keep going through this one if ever you have the choice.
(On DVD, April 2018) A lot of baggage has been attached to the Dirty Harry character over the years, from the politics of the film and/or star, to Clint Eastwood’s iconic presence, to catchphrases and situations that would be introduced in the sequels rather than the original film. But the original Dirty Harry is quite a bit better than its modern perception would suggest. Executed at a time when Hollywood was getting grimmer and harsher as a response to the freed shackles of the Hays Code, Dirty Harry is still faintly shocking for its violence and gritty portrayal of early-seventies San Francisco. As a madman terrorizes the city, it’s up to Harry Callahan (a more than impressive Eastwood) to bring order back to the city … by all means necessary. It’s hard, in the current environment questioning police brutality, to watch Dirty Harry and be swept up by cheers for the hero. There’s a basic disconnect now between what we expect of heroes and what the movie delivers—and I certainly hope that the gap grows even bigger as time goes by. Still, the film does stack things up in favour of its protagonist, either by making the antagonist pure evil, or making it clear that the situation around him demands such extreme measures. Better-directed by Don Siegel than you’d expect from an early-seventies crime thriller (including two rather effective helicopter shots), Dirty Harry remains captivating largely due to good plotting and a character compelling despite obvious flaws. Eastwood is extraordinary here, but it’s worth noting that his character is flawed in many respects—beyond the vigilantism, he clearly loses focus on a stakeout and allows a situation to get even worse. Still, the film brushes much of these things aside in an effort to streamline the film’s impact on its audience. (It also multiplies contrivances to explain why the suspect is allowed to go free on those damnable “technicalities.”) It’s certainly possible to disagree with much of the film’s message while being impressed by its impact, though, and ultimately that’s why Dirty Harry will endure even as it keeps being bothersome in its depiction of police violence.