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Friday, July 24, 2009

THE DIRTY HARRY SERIES: A STUDY IN "SEQUELITIS"

If you're a fan of violent mainstream action films, it's a good bet you enjoy yourself a Dirty Harry movie or two and no doubt know the following quote by heart:

I know what you're thinking. "Did he fire six shots or only five?" Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?

Clint Eastwood's always been cool as fuck, but none of the badasses he's played in his impressive career have attained the downright iconic status held by Inspector Harry Callahan of the San Francisco Police Department (although there's a case to be made in favor of the Man with No Name in those Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns). Spanning a series of five feature films, the series kicked off in 1971 with the eponymous DIRTY HARRY and its box office success guaranteed a sequel would appear not long after. But like most film series it soon fell victim to the dread disease of "sequelitis," in other words the subsequent films just couldn't hold a candle to the root entry. That said, let's examine the five films one by one.

DIRTY HARRY (1971)

Director Don Siegel — who helmed the excellent 1956 version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS — crafted a tense thriller with this first film, and the results are justly considered one of the classics of the genre. We meet "Dirty" Harry Callahan (so called because he gets "stuck with every dirty job that comes along") as he hunts Scorpio (the superb and completely underrated Andrew Robinson, later fomer Cardassian spy Elim Garak on STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE), a serial-killing sniper who has no agenda other than to cause terror and murder innocent people.

Andy Robinson as the chilling serial killer Scorpio.

Over the course of the film we see Harry's rather cynical and nihilistic worldview through the eyes of his new partner, Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni), the latest in a long line of partners who never last long, and in no time we realise Harry's pretty much the old school, tough as nails western sheriff transplanted into the modern day of the Vietnam era, and as such he's the walking antithesis to the "peace and love" generation. Harry's psychologically agonizing battle with Scorpio is a nerve-wracking back-and-forth conflict of equally clever and tough opponents, with Scorpio having a slight advantage by virtue of his sociopathic insanity, and as it plays out we see that Harry's outright savagery in his handling of matters is the only thing that can possibly bring down the psycho in question. Waging an endless war against the "creeps" and "punks" that infest his city, Harry simply does not give a fuck about such piddling considerations as due process or even basic human rights when it comes to criminals, and the audience is right there with him because the judgment he passes down upon those he blasts into oblivion with his expertly-wielded Smith & Wesson revolver is never wrong. And let's face it, people understandably hate vicious criminals who prey upon society, and the figure of the righteous Harry Callahan "taking out the trash" is bound to strike a chord within the viewer, no matter how seemingly fascistic such a character may come off as. I'm not in any way down with vigilante cops in real life, but when it comes to fantasies writ large across the big screen, I'm glad to know Harry's there to do what the legal system can't — or won't — due to its own bureaucracy and respect for its own sometimes self-restricting legal statutes. An extremely odd film to have come out when it did, DIRTY HARRY pretty much invented and defined the "cop on the edge" archetype that has since been beaten to death (even within the series itself), and is one hell of an engrossing cinematic effort. If you only see one film in this series, the initial DIRTY HARRY is the absolute "must see" of the lot.

MAGNUM FORCE (1973)

Following the events of the first film Harry is no longer working homicide and is instead stuck doing stakeout duty (with new partner Felton Perry, who would later turn up in ROBOCOP), but Harry's a veritible trouble-magnet, so when assorted "untouchable" criminals and assorted other human vermin keep turning up very dead, Harry comes to realize the victims were dispatched by a motorcycle cop, someone the victims would not have anticipated as a potential murderer. At first the spotlight of suspicion falls on one of Harry's old cop pals, but it soon becomes obvious that a quartet of motorcycle cops with extraordinary marksmanship skills have taken it upon themselves to mete out vigilante justice as they see fit and, seeing Harry's way of thinking and acting as being in line with their own, the psycho cycle fuzz ask Harry to join their cause (oh, and by this point Harry's been brought back into homicide). What they definitely don't count on is Harry not being down with their murderous plan, and once he refuse their offer it's only a matter of time until he becomes number one on their hit list... There's more going on behind the scenes with the "magnum force," as Harry discovers to his horror, and this entry is hands-down the most visceral and violent of the bunch. It's also sadly pedestrian in its direction, especially when considering how intriguing the premise is and how it tests Callahan's own code of ultra-violent justice with a story by John (CONAN THE BARBARIAN and RED DAWN) Milius and screenplay by Milius and Michael (THE DEER HUNTER) Cimino. While not brilliant, the film's moral ambiguities and shattering, exploitation movie-style ultra-violence make it my favorite of the sequels.

THE ENFORCER (1976)

Here's where the sequels' precipitous nosedive in quality commenced, or rather the sequelitis began its insidious infection in earnest. THE ENFORCER feels like the pilot for a Dirty Harry mismatched "buddy cop" TV series, thanks largely to a by-the-numbers threat — a motley terrorist organization called the People's Revolutionary Strike Force — and Harry's latest partner, Inspector Kate Morse (played by Tyne Daly of THE ROOKIES and later CAGNEY & LACEY renown), a nine-year veteran of the Personnel department with no prior homicide experience who is included to provide harry with endless opportunities to display a sexist attitude that predictably mellows as he warms to his sidekick's pluckiness.

Tyne Daly as Inspector Kate Morse.

As this was the mid-1970's, Morse is very much in "I am Woman, hear me roar" mode, and in those days I'd guess the character was somewhat revolutionary for a mainstream action movie (but certainly not for the exploitation genre, which had cornered the market of tough females not long previous), but now the earnest stridency and gumption the screenwriters gave her is dated, trite, and kind of embarrassing to endure. Plus, since she's one of Harry's partners, she's the equivalent to a "red shirt" on STAR TREK, so it's much ado over an inevitable casualty; at least she her dying words weren't "I love you," because that would have made the average viewer puke and sent the action movie fans in the audience into a litany of booing and Bronx cheers. THE ENFORCER is watchable, but only just, so approach with discretion.

SUDDEN IMPACT (1983)

Prior to the days when the house where I grew up had a VCR, this was the first Dirty Harry movie I ever saw and I was curious to see what the big deal about the character was. Following what I saw here, I'm surprised I was interested enough to delve back to the series' origins. The only film in the series to be directed by Clint Eastwood, this is an ugly throwback to the rape/revenge movies that were popular in the grindhouses in the previous decade, and is considered by many to be the most violent film in the franchise. Looking like a garden variety exploitation actioner from a company like Golan-Globus, SUDDEN IMPACT finds a fifty-something Harry on the trail of a revenge killer (Sondra Locke, who was romantically involved with Clint Eastwood for some fourteen years) who's blowing the genitals off her male victims before murdering them outright in retaliation for a gang-rape that she survived while her sister was so traumatized that she was left catatonic. Once the gang of rapists and their stereotypical dyke cohort figure out that they're targets, it's only a matter of time until a final showdown, with harry on the fence as to whether he should allow the killer retribution or bust her along with the rapists. This film is routine in every way and is notable only for Harry's new gun, a hand cannon called an AutoMag, and for introducing the catch phrase "Go ahead, make my day" to the lexicon. Wildly popular and deeply unpleasant — not that one would expect a Dirty Harry movie to be pleasant, but you know what I mean — this one is best enjoyed by sadists, those who get off on sordid rape fantasies, and folks who have no better action film to watch at the moment. More like SODDEN IMPACT, if you ask me. Or as the British might say, "SODDING IMPACT."

THE DEAD POOL (1988)

The final film in the Dirty Harry cycle sees the series fizzle out utterly as our hero finds himself on "the dead pool," a list of famous people who participants in the game predict will die. This film is just more of the same, to ever-diminishing returns, and is worth seeing only to note Liam Neeson in a Dirty Harry movie, and an early appearance of a then-unknown Jim Carrey as a junkie rock star asshole who lip-synchs Guns 'N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle."

A young Jim Carrey (credited as "James") as junkie rock star asshole Johnny Squares, two years before his breakout work on IN LIVING COLOR.

But when all is said and done, this series really should not have continued past the initial entry because once it had invented the archetype where else was there for the series to go? MAGNUM FORCE made a valiant attempt at doing something interesting, scriptwise anyway, but from there on the patient succumbed to a virulent case of sequelitis and could not be saved. Or at least that's my take on it. What sez you?

"Keep reading The Vault of Buncheness, asshole, or I'll blow your head clean off!"

7 comments:

Amber Love said...

At least in today's Hollywood, many of the dreaded sequels go through the Straight to DVD route so as to have low expectations. The horror genre in particular, I find staggering with the number of sequels that come out of one decent idea. Sometimes I'm really impressed by a sequel and can't wait to see if there will be a 3rd like the National Treasure movies which I went in with low expectations and came out really enjoying.

John Bligh said...

It should also be noted that while the original, since it is so good, can be enjoyed on regular TV, MAGNUM FORCE is best viewed as a rental, as all the best parts (sex, nudity, violence) are butchered on AMC, TNT etc...

Deacon Blue said...

I agree wholeheartedly with the take on the final two movies. I kind of liked The Enforcer, even though I thought it was weaker than the first two...but it should have been the end to the series, no doubt.

Jim Browski said...

I am totally in accord with you on this one. So much so that, while I've picked up the first three on dvd, I have no use at all for the final two. Considering my predilection for completeness, that tells you something about how much I can't stand Sudden Impact or especially The Dead Pool.
As a footnote, I met Andrew "Scorpio" Robinson at a Chiller con a few years back. As is usually the case with so many actors who portray "psychos", he was the complete antithesis of his character. Its unfortunate that his most famous role was also the role that caused his complete typecasting from then on.

Hellbilly said...

Oddly, The Enforcer is my personal fav, but only because it was the single entry of the francise that I saw in the theater - and to my 8 year old, 1976 unjaded eyes, it was unlike anything I'd seen before. Seeing Tyne Daly getting blown away at the end - killing off one of the "good guys", much less a woman - was unprecedented and downright shocking to me (though, a year later, I'd be even more shaken to the core when kind old hero Obi-Wan Kenobi is sliced in twain).

And the "taking out the bad guy with a bazooka" over-the-top ending pushed all the right buttons for my pre-teen, GI Joe-and-Godzilla-loving sensibilities.

Deacon Blue said...

Ah, Hellbilly, you just made me realize why I like The Enforcer. I was the same age, and now that you mention that, it was a pretty striking thing to kill her off, and it was the first time I had seen Dirty Harry too, now that you mention it (damn, I knew my mom was taking me to R rated movies early, but I thought I was 10, not 8, when she started doing that...LOL).

I also recall vividly that whole chase scene with Tyne Daly running around with the briefcase, and recalling how both real and absurd it looked....in a good way.

Kevie said...

You just made me realize I only ever saw the last one. And I only went because I was somehow under the impression that Axl Rose was the bad guy in it. Literally the only thing I can remember from that film is my disappointment at that endless fucking scene of Jim Carrey (!) vamping it up and lip-synching to "Welcome to the Jungle".

Now I'm gonna make it a point to watch the first one. Thanks!