On the popularity of his promise to blow our heads “clean off”, Dirty Harry is back and in this second instalment he’s dirtier than ever. His affinity with his 44.Magnum easily equals that of The Man with the Golden Gun and just between you and me, I reckon Dirrrrrrrrty Harry knows how to use his with that bit more prowess. The opening credits honour the esteemed position of this metallic sidekick and it takes centre screen throughout (a slightly trembling hand lets us know that this isn’t simply a picture of someone holding a gun) and before we cut to the action we hear, lest we forget, those immortal words “do you feel lucky?…” and the gun wheels around until we’re staring straight down its barrel.
The ’70s are alive and kicking in all their flared glory thanks to Lalo Schifrin’s magnificently evokative score which pounds the era into my face with every twang of the bass. From the word go it blends seemlessly with the action throughout the film and relentlessly fights against the brassy overstatement scores you get in so many action/thrillers.
Magnum Force seems to be going well already and it hasn’t even started yet. It opens with some criminals being acquitted of some terrible crime, much to the anger of the crowd gathered outside. ‘Has Harry gone All the Presidents Men on us?’ we wonder as a few minutes into the film there’s been lots of talking and no action… but then in a manner so un-frivolous you’d be forgiven if you missed it, a traffic cop pulls over the freed felons’ car, takes out a hand gun, shoots them all down and drives off. And where’s Inspector Callahan? Transferred to the stake-out squad. Things could get messy…
Well it would take more than some petty bureaucracy to keep Dirty Harry away from a murder scene and he rocks up much to Lt. Briggs’ dismay, quipping away with gay abandon about how “this couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch” before being shoed away and teamed up with a new partner, Inspector Early Smith (who I suppose must have been living under a rock on Mars before arriving in San Francisco) and catching a bite to eat at the best burger bar in town. Which just happens to be in the airport. Even if Harry hasn’t noticed, it seems that crime follows him around and a simple burger soon turns into a plane hijacking. “May I make a suggestion?” proposes Harry innocently. Cut to him climbing aboard the plane in pilots’ stripes and Briggs being told over the phone that “it’s lucky one of your guys happened to be here!” Saving the day by any means necessary is water off a duck’s back to Callahan. He strolls off the plane like he’s just arrived on a two week holiday in Bermuda.
God bless the person who told screenplay writers John Milius and Michael Cimino that Dirty Harry is at his best when he’s dealing with situations which have nothing to do with the main plot. The plane scene doesn’t move the story on or even develop any characters but it sure is great to watch him take down the bad guys ‘his way’ and walk off knowing he’s done the right thing.
Anyway, back to the story and this mysterious vigilante force is bumping off criminals all over the shop and the powers that be just can’t work out who’s behind it. We enlightened watchers know it’s a masked policeman but our first hint as to his/their identity comes when Callahan spends has a chat with some rookie uniformed officers on the target practise range, and spends just a little bit longer doing it than he would if these characters weren’t going to prove to be quite important further down the line. And also one of them is David Soul, and even though this is pre-Starsky and Hutch, I don’t reckon they’d have got him in for a bit part. Callahan marvels at their superb marksmanship and I can’t help but wonder if that’s more than just polite chatter. Although the ending of the scene is priceless: when Inspector Smith remarks how the four of them spent so much time together folks begun to wonder if they were more than just friends, Callahan retorts “if they could all shoot like that I wouldn’t care if the whole damn department was queer.” The look of a passing officer at that moment is priceless.
Although it’s a strong set up and a strong plot, I have to say the most memorable moments of Magnum Force are those which are based around Callahan himself, irrespective of the plot. There’s a funny but completely understandable and rational theme of women throwing themselves at him without any provocation other than his existing which runs throughout… when a total (but very sexy oriental) stranger suddenly asks “What does a girl have to do to go to bed with you?” Callahan isn’t even phased and gentlemanly replies “try knocking on the door” (oh Clint, if only it were that easy…).
Before long we are told that it’s the Boys Brigade who are knocking off the top baddies in town and then it’s just a matter of waiting for the police department to play catch up. Callahan is way head of the game (or is he?) and the fact that it’s one of this group of officers who arrive at the scene of every one of these crimes gets his Spidey Sense tingling to the extent where he throws a shooting competition to get hold of one of Sgt Davis’ (Soul) bullets.
One of the film’s most memorable scenes comes about not long after, when Davis et al work out that Callahan is more than just a pretty face and square up to him in a car park with an ultimatum. “Either you’re with us or against us” (at that point my mind jumped straight to Ben Hur but that’s probably just me…). There are some very interesting theories bandied about as Davis claims that his gang represent “the first generation that’s learnt to fight” and Callahan disappoints them by explaining they’d “misjudged” him. But I don’t think that’s strictly true as only a few minutes beforehand he’d said to Briggs that “there’s nothing wrong with shooting as long as the right people get shot” so I can’t see what he’s got against the actions of this vigilante group except that they’re outside the law. Is Dirty Harry really a renegade, as he would have us believe?
I don’t want to put him down at all, but as the film goes on it seems more and more that Callahan is a slave to the system and a big fish in a small pond. When it’s revealed to us that Briggs is in on the whole scheme, he says that “one hundred years ago people in this city did the same thing” and if Clint Eastwood’s taught us anything it’s that he’s right. So just why is Callahan so against the removal of these crime lords when the only difference between them and him is that they’ve not got the right paperwork to back it up? Hummm…. food for thought there.
Anyway, this being a mainstream Hollywood film, the bad guys get their comeuppance at the hands of Callahan, who hunts them down around a deserted ship yard and takes them out one by one. At this point I reference my Coogan’s Bluff retrospective, where I wrote of my disappointment at the ending, because I’m pretty much about to repeat the same sentiment here. The hunt is pedestrian… quite literally in some cases… and Davis death driving into the water at a moderate speed is not only unbelievable but in a film which has been remembered for its incredibly high levels of explicit violence, I think I expected a little more effort. After all, this man has bloodily massacred several people during the film and all we get is him floating arse-side up in a pond.
The stand-off between Callahan and Briggs is a bit more promising as Briggs promises to take Callahan down for murdering the officers with his “own system” (well, you know my thoughts on that) but then bizarrely Briggs just gets in a car, drives off a bit and explodes. Possibly the worst part is what happens next. Watching him go up in flames, Callahan pulls an exquisite facial expression, a mixture of satisfaction and smugness and charm all rolled into one handsome ball of Clint and just when I think the camera’s going to cut away and leave it at that, he goes in for a cheap tag line and says “a man’s got to know his limitations” a line which he’d fired at Briggs earlier in the film. Who is he talking to!? Why couldn’t he just have thought it?! Sometimes silence speaks more than a thousand (or seven) words ever can and this is perhaps the strongest case of this sentiment in action I’ve seen for a while.
That having been said, I do enjoy Magnum Force but I don’t think it realizes its full potential by any means. It’s stark and unexaggerated to its credit but it’s just not very forceful about making itself known, and that’s not something I’ll say about Clint Eastwood very often. It’s a great film to watch for a cheap thrill and some great one-liners and, well, just Clint doing what he does best but ultimately I’d like to see more from this film which makes some almost makes some bold statements but falls down for trying to be too mainstream.