(Working on three new reviews right now, plus some real life stuff, so here is a heavily re-edited "classic" review from my "Facebook only" days)
Ah, Dirty Harry. The name alone brings up images of Clint Eastwood in his prime, spewing out memorable quotes and dishing out violence against lawbreakers. The character is real pop culture phenomenon, moving beyond being a cinema icon to become something more abstract; a representative symbol of a cultural and political attitude.
It is this very cultural status that is investigated in the final two Dirty Harry films, Sudden Impact (Eastwood 1983) and The Dead Pool (Van Horn 1989). These films appeared after a sizable absence of Harry from the screen: Sudden Impact (Eastwood 1983) was released a full seven years after The Enforcer (Fargo 1976), while The Dead Pool would follow six years after Sudden Impact. The gap between the 1970s instalments in the series and these 1980s productions seems to mark a shift in the tone and look of these films, a change resulting not only from the evolution of film technology but from the awareness of the iconic status that the character eared after the earlier films. However, the manner in which this awareness manifests in the films Sudden Impact and The Dead Pool are entirely different, as one seeks to critically examine how the character reflects and responds to reality, while the other sets out to outright exploit the character‘s iconic status.
Sudden Impact appears to be star and director Clint Eastwood’s attempt to work out the problematic contradictions of the preceding films in the series regarding their political content and function as entertainment. The original Dirty Harry (Siegel 1971) was a straightforward police thriller about an officer who operates as a hero from a western rather than as a modern cop, who ultimately seems to lose his faith in the law and finds himself outside of society that doesn’t seem to like him. Dark, violent and featuring a lead character in Harry who, as portrayed by Eastwood, is pretty darn miserable, Dirty Harry is a film that is a fairly cynical commentary on American after the 1960s. It is this political nature of the film which gives it a powerful edge and transforms it into more than a mere thriller.
However, the 1970s sequels increasingly try to reintegrate Harry into society and mute his harder edges, attempting to make him into a seeming didactic voice of reason whilst simultaneously trying to make him seem less authoritarian. Thus, Harry’s violent streak in these sequels becomes less shocking as it lacks the aggressive political stance of the original. By The Enforcer, the series is little more than a collection of action set pieces with no point or commentary, with Harry as the gruff but loveable lead. Sudden Impact tries to bring back the seriousness of the original film while layering on an additional goal of pointing out the vapid nature of the preceding direction the series was taking, even criticising how commercial filmmaking hides the harsher realities of the subject matter in the name of entertainment.
The central thrust of the film is that a series of murders are being committed by a woman named Jennifer Spencer (Sandra Locke), who ten years preceding the events of the film was raped along with her sister by a group of men with the assistance of another woman. Spencer’s targets are those who committed the crime against her and her sister, one of whom is in San Francisco, where she exacts her revenge before returning to the small town of San Paulo where her remaining targets live. However, the San Francisco murder becomes the excuse for the SFPD management to get Harry out of town for a while, with the investigation taking him to San Paulo and directly into the life of Spencer.
The key to understanding the film’s themes and ideas is within the flashbacks to Spencer and her sister’s rape. The flashbacks to the rape reveal that the location was beneath a boardwalk near the town carnival and the sequence in the film is completely disturbing, jump cutting between the rape and the carnival as people carry on, not noticing the horror being carried out nearby. The crime is quickly covered up in a due to a set of circumstances I will not spoil here, but it leaves Spencer and her sister to internalize the event, with the psychological scars rupturing to the surface in Spencer’s art, a rupture which is mirrored cinematically as jump cuts to the flashback appear throughout the film.
For a large period of time, the grim narrative of Spencer’s revenge is kept separate from Harry Callahan’s narrative, in regards to location, plot and even Harry’s involvement in the case. As the film starts, Harry is once again in trouble and carrying out his usual brand of justice, causing an aging mobster to have a heart attack and getting firebombed in his car by a group of fairly moronic young men. San Francisco here is not the same dire city falling apart at the seams as in the original: it is now a playground where Harry and criminals of various sorts shoot it out, giving the audience what they seem to want. These sequences are exciting and often full of humour (Harry’s heart attack inducing visit to the mob boss at his daughter’s wedding is priceless), but they carry no weight when contrasted to the far grimmer narrative of Spencer.
As Harry moves into the town and into Spencer’s life as both an investigator and as a form of love interest, the fun and humour of the early San Francisco portions of the film give way to a much grimmer story. Spencer soon becomes the target of the remaining rapists and Harry finds himself in a world far from the over the top shootouts of San Francisco, entering into the grey areas of the law and his role as upholding it and questioning his own views and values. The audience is thus dragged away from any concept of pure entertainment, and forced to try and reconcile their own desires and the two halves of the film.
Eastwood’s staging of the final shootout at the carnival crystallizes the criticism of entertainment, as personal violation, rage, and the law confront one another and take on a perversity within the surroundings. I will not spoil the ending, but I will note that the film leaves the viewer with more questions than answers, as it should.
The Dead Pool however is an entirely different beast. Once again, the idea of Harry’s role in popular culture and as a figure of entertainment comes to the surface, only this time more overtly. In the film, Harry has become famous for his arrest of a noted mobster, managing to get good publicity for the police department for a change and leaving him the target of the media, a position he could care less for. Soon Harry is assigned to investigate the murder of a rock star, Johnny Squares (Jim Carrey in an early role), who was filming a horror film with director Peter Swan (Liam Neeson). It is soon discovered that Swan and members of his crew are involved in a game titled “the Dead Pool” where bets are made on whether or not the individual can correctly guess which celebrities will die in the coming year, and Harry’s name is on the list.
If Sudden Impact is an attempt to question the co-existence between entertainment and the complexities of reality, The Dead Pool is the exact opposite. It is a film which seeks to be pure entertainment and functioning as a love letter to the character of Harry Callahan and his status as cinematic icon. Oh sure, there are vague themes about the media, celebrity and social responsibility, but the film never lets these themes get in the way of basically letting Harry kick ass. Nor does the film allow logic, character development, or solid screenwriting get in the way either, as all is swept aside for over the top action, bad one-liners and police thriller clichés.
More often than not however, this superficial approach works as a piece of sheer entertainment, if only because of some the bizarre elements that make it into the film. This includes Jim Carrey as a hard rocker lip-syncing to “Welcome to the Jungle,” and Harry being chased on the streets of San Francisco in his car by a radio controlled toy car with a bomb in it. However, the film’s presentation of horror films, filmmakers, and rock stars feel like an episode of Matlock rather than a hard edged police action thriller, showing no sign of understanding any of these elements of the popular culture . While this is funny, it also illustrates why the series needed to be retired at that point, having drifted too far away from the cultural relevancy of the original film. Eastwood more than manages to hold the film together however throughout its running time, by sheer force of screen presence. As such, the film remains an entertaining experience.
At the end of the day, I have no problems recommending either film, although I admit your enjoyment of The Dead Pool may not match mine, while Sudden Impact, by its very nature is a dark piece of cinema that is sure to turn off its fair share of viewers through its challenging of what one expects from a Dirty Harry film. Still, for those fascinated by cinema’s attempts to reflect on its own nature, these films will prove to be enlightening, showcasing the various sides of a truly legendary character.