It can be fascinating to watch a legend mutate as time passes. Last week in The Series Project, here in the hallowed pages of CraveOnline, I wrote about the first three films in the famous Dirty Harry series. In the introduction to that article, I pointed out what a cultural powerhouse Clint Eastwood is, and how his famous portrayal of Inspector Harry Callahan is iconic in a way most grizzled badass heroes simply aren't.
I also pointed out that he wasn't really a “badass” per se. When I think of a movie Badass, I picture the type of movie star that followed Dirty Harry. The kind with no shirt, huge biceps, and perhaps a machine gun or rocket launcher handily toted under their arm. Harry Callahan was not a 'roided-out butt-kicker. He was a hard-edged cop with a Puritan work ethic. True, the two ideas kind of bleed into each other, but I still hold that Harry Callahan was a cynic with such a strong mind for justice that he bothered to go rogue. He was not the type to murder 300 people to save his kidnapped daughter.
Harry Callahan stayed relatively consistent throughout the first three films in the Dirty Harry series, but this week, as we cover the two final films in the series, and enter the 1980s in earnest, we'll see a slightly changed version of Harry. Indeed, we may find that he's become something of a badass himself, and this may not be a good thing. Indeed, we'll have to pick up this week with the 4th and easily the worst in the series. Let's take a look at…
Sudden Impact (dir. Clint Eastwood, 1983)
The gap between the third and the fourth Dirty Harry films (a gap of seven years) was the greatest in the series. My guess was once Harry Callahan was blowing people up with bazookas, and losing two partners in one film, perhaps the series had gone a little too far over the top. Gone were the early 1970s tone of grittiness and cynicism. Well, even though Clint Eastwood is known today for making slow-paced and thoughtful and classical films, this one of his (the only one of the Dirty Harry movies he directed, and his 10th directorial effort) is clearly coming from a different place. Indeed, Eastwood seems to be in the camp of pure exploitation in 1983, as he made a trashy, modern-day update of I Spit on Your Grave.
Here's the skinny: Harry Callahan, sporting a new pair of shades (he wears updated sunglasses in every film), is still in vigilante mode. He still works the same position in the San Francisco police department. He still shoots his beloved .44 Magnum, and he still wears stylish gray/brown suits. He still drives his American-made boat cars. Why hasn't Harry changed clothes? Sudden Impact points out the classic problem of icon fatigue: the character has now become too iconic for his own good. It would be hard, at this point, to see Harry in a different suit, or firing a different gun. And why, for goodness' sake, is he still working the exact same position in the police force that he was 12 years ago? I don't know how promotions in the SFPD work, but I would assume an troublemaking gent like Callahan would either be assigned to a desk to keep him out of trouble, or busted down to beat cop. Callahan has become too mythic. He's not allowed to progress. Like remember when you saw Indiana Jones wearing the exact same outfit in Indiana Jones and the King Dome of the Crystal Skull? Same sort of thing. An old guy refuses to change jackets.
What's more, his reputation is so mythic, he's become kind of unkillable. There's nothing at risk for Harry. We're even eager to see him cause trouble. We've only paid admission to see him blow away punks and give us some new catchphrases. We're given a pip of a catchphrase in this one. Sudden Impact has the famous “Go ahead, make my day” line.
But then, this was the highest grossing of all the Dirty Harry films, so what do I know?
The story involves the usual clearly-guilty-but-acquitted-on-a-technicality character (in this case, a frat boy gangster played by Wendell Wellman) that Harry, in his inimitable fashion, harasses. Remember in the first Dirty Harry when Callahan was accused of harassment by Scorpio? How that was not Harry's way, and he was clearly being framed? Yeah, he's actually stooped to harassing by this film. Indeed, in a largely unresolved plot, we see Harry shaking down an aged Italian mob guy at his granddaughter's wedding. Harry claims to have evidence against the guy, and he has a heart attack. Harry is not a cop. He's a bullying angel of justice.
The main story is actually about a wispy blonde woman named Jennifer Spencer (Eastwood regular Sandra Locke, his then-girlfriend) and her own quest for vigilante justice. She has a brutal M.O.: She tracks down thugs, corners them in a lonely place, and then shoots them in the genitals and then the head. Youch. Why so angry? Well, we learn that Jennifer and her younger sister, now comatose, were beaten and raped a few years ago by a wicked gang of horny drunks. Jennifer has been catching up with the punks and shooting them for revenge. For herself and her comatose sister, who hasn't spoken a word since the incident. I'm sad to be quite this schooled in cinema, but I know of an entire subgenre of film called rape-revenge. 1978's I Spit on Your Grave is probably the crown jewel of the subgenre. As such, Sudden Impact is actually kind of boilerplate stuff.
Here's a curious detail: The rape gang, we see in flashbacks, was led by – and goaded on by – a cackling matron character played by Nancy Parsons. She seems the most evil of the gang, and seems to take the most glee in the rape of the women. Was she getting off on watching her son and a few of his buddies go to town on these two innocents? The film implies she may be gay. Is she an evil lesbian? How offended should I be? I wish we got more about the character, but every time we see her, she only gives dire warnings and mean-spirited threats. Jennifer catches up with her as well and, sadly, she is not the final villain to be killed, which robs us of a villain speech wherein she would explain herself. Too bad.
Oh, before Callahan catches up with Jennifer, there is a rather disgusting sex scene wherein Callahan and his buddy Horace (played by Albert Popwell, who has appeared in all the films to date) talk guns, and stroke guns and show off guns… Seriously, it's borderline sexual. Sudden Impact, even more than the other four films, is loaded with gun fetish. The guys rattle off details about their respective Magnums, and they may as well be comparing their penises. The gun nuts in the audience were, no doubt, having unsavory thoughts to this scene.
Anyway, Callahan, for the heart attack incident, is transferred out of San Francisco by his pissy boss (still Michael Currie), and given a job in a small nearby town (I think Santa Cruz), where he is given a bulldog (!) whom he names Meathead, and a new pissy boss in the form of Pat Hingle. It is here that he'll run into Jennifer on her quest. They do have a somewhat romantic regard, but it's borne by a mutual animosity; they spend their screen time together sniping at one another. It will take Callahan a while to realize that she's stalking around killing rapists.
There's no real big twist here. Jennifer hunts, Callahan figures it out. It turns out one of the rapists is Pat Hingle's son, only now he is himself comatose out of regret and grief over his crime. Jennifer is eventually apprehended for her murders. But, thanks to Harry, her crimes are pinned on one of the dead rapists. I understand that we want to see justice done, but it seems wrong for her to get away with this. She has achieved piece of mind and has achieved vigilante revenge. Surely she should be arrested for murder? No. Callahan's sense of outsider justice is so strong that he covers for her. Case closed. Not that rapists should be allowed to go free, but killing them is just another crime. But then, that's not what rape-revenge films are about.
I was kind of bored by Sudden Impact. I didn't like what had happened to Harry, and I didn't like the tone. The story was, at the very least, a kind of toss-up from the previous films; rape-revenge wasn't tried yet.
In five more years, we'll have the series' final hurrah. I implore that you buckle up, as this next film is kind of a pop culture bouillabaisse.
The Dead Pool (dir. Buddy Van Horn, 1988)
Buddy Van Horn was Clint Eastwood's longtime stand-in and stuntman, and had previously directed Any Which Way You Can.
The Dead Pool is one prolonged WTF moment. Seriously, this film is bugnuts. Its tone clashes directly with all the recognizable pop culture elements that it incorporates (slasher films, R/C cars, serial killers, heavy metal), and it has so many recognizable actors – and one particularly recognizable album – that my pop culture brain was spinning throughout. It was fun, in a dizzying sort of way.
So get this: Guns N' Roses released singles from their famed album Appetite for Destruction in October of 1988. The Dead Pool was released in July of 1988. In the film, a drug addicted rock star named Johnny Squares is first seen lip-synching to Welcome to the Jungle on the set of a horror movie called Hotel Satan. Throughout the film, if your eyes are sharp, you'll see members of Guns N' Roses lurking in the background. Axl Rose is clearly seen at the funeral scene. This was a few months, mind you, before Gun N' Roses took off in earnest. This was incredibly prescient of the director to use GNR music, seeing as it hadn't yet redefined rock for the hair metal generation.
Johnny Squares, by the way? Jim Carrey. No bullsh*t. Again, 1988. Carrey wasn't a star yet. How odd, then, to see the recognizable face of Jim Carrey, as an introduction, wailing the first primal scream of Welcome to the Jungle. What's more, he's on the set of a fake horror film with garish neon colors in the background and a head-spinning demon on a bed in the middle of the room. My brain began to melt at this point.
It melted a little bit more when I saw that Liam Neeson, sporting the douchiest ponytail imaginable, played the film's Eurotrash director. Neeson, usually so strong, was dressed in alluring black leather, and given a fakey British accent. I admire Neeson, and I didn't know he was in The Dead Pool. I guess it shows his strengths as an actor that he can play an insufferable prick.
About that horror film. Hotel Satan, was it? By 1988, it was pretty clear that the slasher film was riding high in the world (by 1988, we had six Friday the 13th films, three A Nightmare on Elm Street films, and three Halloween films), which, at the time, led media watchdog groups to speak out in protest. Slasher films, it was commonly argued, were corrupting the minds of our youths, and the people who make them are clearly exploiting and desensitizing the young. Horror movie directors must be amoral crackpots! To illustrate this, not only did they make Liam Neeson a douche, but they had him act as a participant in the titular “Dead Pool,”which was a simple bet as to which at-risk celebrity was going to die next. Seeing as such pools are now common online, this idea seems quaint.
To further illustrate the evils of horror movies, The Dead Pool will have the killer be an unstable man who, thanks to exposure to too many horror films, sprouted an alternate personality that murders people. I guess horror outrage was common in 1988, but this smacks of a Scare Film. There's also some finger-wagging at the increasingly shameless news media and the growth of the talk show circuit. Patricia Clarkson plays an ambitious reporter who starts out as a pushy jerk, but who mellows once she and Harry start tentatively romancing one another.
One toy I always wanted as a kid (and I actually got) was a remote control car. R/C cars made a boom around 1988, and every kid seemed to have one. I still think R/C is cool. Thanks to this, there will be a bizarre and kind of kick-ass car chase through the streets of San Francisco wherein a real car will be driving away from a tiny R/C car (with a bomb in it!), being controlled by a third car in the rear. It's taut and exciting this chase, but baffling because of its scale. It's one of the cutest chase scenes I've seen.
Oh yeah. Harry is still in this movie. I nearly forgot. The film is so wacky, Harry himself appears as a kind of an afterthought. This is the first of the Dirty Harry films to feature a legitimate mystery (we previously knew who the killer was early on; this time it's masked until near the end), and Harry doesn't seem to be the one doing the major uncovering. He leaves that to Clarkson and to his new partner Quon (Evan C. Kim). Harry is pretty much there to grumble and to shake his head in weary resign as to the sad state of the modern world. Harry was always kind of crotchety, but in this film (and Eastwood was only 58) he feels nearly ancient. People have been calling him an outmoded dinosaur since Magnum Force. By The Dead Pool, he seems to have actually taken the plunge.
Which is not to say that Harry is not an awesome character still. The Dead Pool is a marked improvement over Sudden Impact, and, thanks to all the nutty qualities, is hugely entertaining. The word “awesome” is overused, as is the word “epic,” so I'll stick with my old standby of “amazing.” The Dead Pool is head-spinning and amazing.
The Dead Pool was released when I was about to turn 10 years old, so, in a weird way, this look back at the Dirty Harry series (that was made largely before I was born), was a gas. It was a fascinating trip to see something so classical link up to my own remembered childhood. I felt the same way when I rounded certain James Bond films. I got to see the series evolve as it went past my own life. Dirty Harry is himself a curmudgeon, all about a more peaceful past when criminals themselves were more decent. Thanks to the year of my birth, I now feel that way about Dirty Harry.
Dirty Harry is, perhaps like Rocky Balboa before him, also a keen dissection of the evolution of the action star from the 1970s to the 1980s. James Bond, for the most part, stayed James Bond. But Harry and Rocky changed as film trends changed. They both, in their respective first films, started out to be gritty and melancholic and kind of realistic. And both, by the fourth films in their respective series, had mutated into unbeatable, peerlessly heroic icons that were used in a somewhat jingoistic fashion by their fans. This was a movement from the depression and hopelessness of the Vietnam War to the blast-'em-all mentality of the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan years. This is a fascinating evolution, especially seeing as how I am a fan of American films of the 1970s, and grew up with action flicks of the 1980s. Be sure to read my rundown on Badass Cinema sometime, wherein I discuss this phenomenon at greater length.
I imagine a younger or older viewer will have a slightly different experience with the Dirty Harry series. Gun nuts will be pleased with the series as a whole, although I think the best is, naturally, the first. Dirty Harry is a legitimate classic. Magnum Force is huge, but kinda clunky. I liked The Enforcer a lot, and you see what I thought of the last two above. Still, these classy, gritty cop flicks are not to be sneezed at, and stand tall behind the badasses of modern times. Enjoy.