Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Rank 'Em: The Dirty Harry Movies

When asked which of the two 1983 James Bond movies I prefer, "Never Say Never Again," or "Octopussy," my first instinct is always to say that I liked that year's Dirty Harry movie, "Sudden Impact," better than both of them. And still, when I think of Clint Eastwood, the image in my head is not the Man With No Name, but the scowling San Francisco police inspector with the .44 Magnum, who busted punks and had the best one-liners. I expect that it's inevitable that we'll see a franchise reboot one of these days, but until then, let's head down memory lane and get reacquainted with the adventures of Inspector Harry Callahan, ranked below from best to worst.

"Dirty Harry" - The first, the most iconic, and definitely the most impactful. Inspector Callahan tracks a serial killer based on Zodiac all over San Francisco, as he commits a string of ever-more heinous crimes. Dirty Harry immediately sets himself apart by being more violent, more aggressive, and more cynical than any maverick police officer protagonist who had come before him. By the end of the film he's a vigilante and perhaps even worse, as many critics have claimed. However, Dirty Harry was always a power fantasy, more superhero than super cop, and his distaste for the limitations of due process was part of his charm. Much of the film's effectiveness is due to the excellent villain, Scorpio, played by Andrew Robinson, who provided a worthy adversary.

"The Enforcer" - It seems like such a ploy at first, pairing the uber-masculine Harry with a novice female inspector after the earlier "Dirty Harry" films were criticized for having a misogynistic streak. However, the chemistry between Clint Eastwood and Tyne Daly is excellent, and the film absolutely doesn't pull its punches. I especially enjoy the way this installment shows off more San Francisco landmarks, including Coit Tower and Alcatraz, where the final showdown takes place. Part of the fun of the series, as a Bay Area resident, is watching the city change through the years. And Harry changes along with it, transitioning here from the harder-edged lone wolf we know and love, into into someone with more dimensions, and a capacity to broaden his horizons.

"Sudden Impact" - The original script for "Sudden Impact" was entirely about Sondra Locke's character, Jennifer Spencer, before it was rewritten to be a Dirty Harry movie. And it definitely shows, since so much of the film is told from her point of view, with Harry practically a supporting character at times. As a result, the story has a very interesting structure, with a very different dynamic between the two leads. I've seen similar rape and revenge stories before, but something about the events here playing out in Dirty Harry's universe of easy violence and harsh consequences made this one resonate more deeply. And going forward, there was no way you could call the series unsympathetic towards women after Harry's encounters with Jennifer Spencer.

"Magnum Force" - I know I liked this one better when I was younger, but the flaws stand out more in retrospect. It's almost titillating in the way that it shows sex and violence, especially the early execution scenes. By contrast, Harry is at his most classically heroic, chasing down a gang of cops-turned vigilantes who operate in ways that he can't stomach. The action scenes are good, and I always enjoy Hal Holbrook, but it's hard to summon much enthusiasm for the film. It's a perfectly good detective movie and Eastwood has no trouble reprising Dirty Harry, but at the same time I couldn't shake how calculated the film felt. It plays more like a response to the many criticisms of the first "Dirty Harry" than a film that really has something to say on its own terms.

"The Dead Pool" - And here's where the franchise slipped perilously close to self-parody, with its toy car chase and schlocky ending. Clint Eastwood was right when he remarked that he was really getting too old for these pictures, though he still passes muster as an ass-kicker onscreen - just barely. There's some novelty in seeing some future stars like Liam Neeson, Patricia Clarkson, and Jim Carrey in the secondary roles, but not much. More than anything else, "The Dead Pool" just didn't feel like a Dirty Harry movie, too pedestrian and by the numbers, deviating from formula in all the wrong ways. The biggest change was with Harry himself, now a cantankerous, but beloved member of the establishment, in a city that had come to appreciate him.


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