Saturday, September 1, 2007

Dirty Harry wrap-up

So a couple months ago I finally saw "Dirty Harry," and it was rad. Then I went and saw the next three entries in the series and was let down.

The first one is so immediately gripping. Ripped from the headlines of the times (1971) there's a crazy killer with an astrological nickname on the loose in San Francisco, shooting his victims at random and sending taunting messages to the police. When Clint Eastwood shows up as "the cop who doesn't play by the rules," he's not just perfecting the model for all anti-heroic action movie cops to follow, you know he's the only man who's going to stop "Scorpio."

And Scorpio's a mean m-f. Actor named Andy Robinson does all kinds of mean, twisted stuff to make you hate him. No sympathy whatsoever to get in the way of wanting to see the guy taken down. Do movies even do that anymore, or is everything now so nuanced that Rob Zombie needs to understand Michael Myers as a disturbed child in need of help?

The script by (I presume) husband-and-wife team Harry & Rita Fink creates all these cliches before they're cliches, and they don't even SOUND like cliches even though you've heard them done a million times since: the chief of police is pissed, Harry (Dirty) is hanging onto his badge by a thread, this bad guy's a madman and we gotta negotiate, and especially - Harry can't use excessive force, leading to Scorpio's release when finally captured. The media, the city hall bureaucrats, they're all complicit with helping the madman escape Harry's long arm of justice. You know...

"He may be a madman but he's got RIGHTS, Callahan!!"

"Oh YEAH?! What about the RIGHTS of that LITTLE GIRL HE KILLED??"

It's awesome partially because neither Eastwood nor any of the actors around him have any self-consciousness about their roles and such. Not yet cliche. They weren't just trailblazing, they were doing it right the first time under the stewardship of the amazing director Don Siegel.

Giddy with entertainment I check out Magnum Force, which has a no-name director but the disctinction of a screenplay by John Milius. The inspiration for John Goodman's character Walter in The Big Lebowski, Milius bears the now-rare filmmaking personality of right-wing gun nut man's man. He did the first Conan and probably wrote that line about crushing your enemies and seeing them driven before you. He definitely wrote the mini-speech from the first Harry:

" 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 a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"

The sequel has a great idea that goes nowhere. A bunch of cops are killing mobsters in cold blood using .44 magnums and of course Harry is getting the blame since everyone knows he's already half-crazy. There are some really creepy scenes of cops entering public places or pulling guys over on the freeway and then just blowing everyone away, including any bystanders the mobsters happen to be with.

Then what happens? Uh...eventually the chief of police is revealed to be behind it all, and then Harry has to face off against all 4 or 5 psycho cops at a waterfront factory. When they offer to let him join their group or die, Harry says that the system is bullshit but a bad system is better than no system. And his catch phrase for this film is, "A man's GOT to know his li-mi-TATIONs..."

It was disappointing, but decent enough overall to keep going. 1976's The Enforcer promises to be "The dirtiest Harry of them all!" when it actually shows a increasing tameness of violence from the first and second films. Basically it's a generic cop movie where Harry has to stop some terrorists while teamed with (uh-oh) a WOMAN cop who's a rookie and eventually they trust each other and blah blah blah...

The disappointment in this case wasn't just the generic direction and writing but the waste of another plot ripped from the headlines of the day. The terrorist group is partially made up of 'Nam vets and in their schemes to create civil unrest and anarchy they clearly represent the Symbionese Liberation Army. There's a group of Black militants based on the Black Panthers whom Harry has to go to for information at one point.

Nothing interesting comes from either time capsules of the era, they're just there. At least the first film played on the fact that the real-life Zodiac killer was never caught, so sending a ficticious supercop after him was catharsis of sorts.

Then we've got 1983's Sudden Impact, which is where I've jumped ship with only one more sequel to go. All those cliches that the first film invented are still here, only now they're cliched and played in a perfunctory manner as though there's no other choice. Harry spouts more one-liners than ever, they give him a fucking DOG to take care of, and aside from the line "Go ahead, make my day," they have him mutter "swell..." over and over as a backup catchphrase.

Speaking of "make my day," Ronald Reagan's quotation of this line makes the constant admonishments from Harry's superiors that he's a relic of a bygone era and not cut out for the way the world is now and no longer relevant all the more ridiculous. Also, the fact he's been breaking the law for years on every case he gets without being fired is now impossible to ignore. It's the re-invention of an icon as a parody of itself, more or less.

I knew I had to give the film a chance since Eastwood directed it, and yeah, he's got a good eye for shots, but there's even less reason for Sudden Impact to exist than the preceding sequels. So I'm gonna take a pass on The Dead Pool and spare myself the sight of an even more geriatric supercop shooting punks and cracking wise in every single scene, since they ran out of ideas for his character two films prior.

The very last shot of the first Harry has Clint Eastwood, having disgraced himself as a cop in order to stop the Scorpo killer, tossing his badge into the water and walking sullenly away. Perfect ending. Too bad it couldn't have stopped there.

I would love to play this thing sometime, though.

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