Eastwood: Sudden Impact


The American legal system is certainly not perfect, a point their national tabloids are often very keen to point out.  Indeed there are modern tort cases which certainly seem to prove that justice is not always served: a robber sues the store worker who shot him, or the thief in the night sues the ‘negligent’ owner of the targeted house, and so on.  Sudden Impact, part of the Dirty Harry series, focuses on the injustices within the American criminal law system, with its endless red tape and corruption meaning that the ‘old school’ techniques of Inspector Callahan are required to ensure that the bad guys don’t win: an inevitable result, it is implied, if things are done by the book.  As a result, in Sudden Impact, Harry takes the law into his own hands, deciding that a clearly unstable mass murderer shouldn’t be handed over to the police because the bad guys who were killed obviously deserved it.  He also decides that he doesn’t need probable cause to investigate suspects because he has a sixth sense about who deserves punishment.  This is all well and good because Inspector Callahan is portrayed as a lone protagonist for justice in a world of criminals and villains in uniform that use endless regulations to conspire against the course of justice.  One only has to take one look at that judge in the first scene of Sudden Impact who could not have loved helping those criminals escape prosecution more.  Harry, therefore, is less of a policeman in Sudden Impact and more of a superhero who inherently knows the right course of action, taking it regardless of any consequences that come from the immoral legal system.

The resulting problem with Sudden Impact is that it just doesn’t feel realistic if you’re expecting a dark, hard-hitting thriller.  Yes, the American legal system is by no means perfect, but its depiction as crooked is far too unilateral; even the cops who aren’t corrupt are portrayed as cold and emotionless, some more interested in unbreakable “bright line” rules than justice, others much more interested in the hotdog they’re holding than the dead, testicle-deficient corpse three feet away from them.  There are also a few issues with the realism within some of the action sequences: Callahan may well be a metaphorical superhero, but you would have thought that at least one of his enemies within the mob might go to the shooting range before running at him with a gun.  Furthermore, much of the acting and dialogue was less than convincing; Sondra Locke makes for a truly terrible female lead and the less said about the awful red-headed female character the better.

These problems do somewhat dissolve when you can occasionally take the film less seriously and some scenes, which may otherwise seem a bit superfluous to the plot, become genuinely good fun: moments such as the ‘make my day’ café shoot-out and any scenes with the dog being good examples.  But the problem is that the back-story between these more light-hearted moments is incredibly dark, telling of the impact of a brutal rape on the lives of two women.  As a result, the film cannot be viewed lightly, but lacks the gritty realism to be viewed as a good thriller.

In the same way, the movie vastly improves when one simply enjoys Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character in isolation.  I cannot deny admiring the audacity in some of the Callahan’s actions: turning to several armed robbers and claiming that he, with his friends Smith and Wesson, will stop them from robbing the cafe is definitively cool.  Similarly, going round shooting everybody who irritates you and causing a guy to have a heart attack with a few words are actions that are admirable for any action character to exhibit.  But whilst the actions of Dirty Harry are good fun, they do not lend themselves particularly easily to a realistic story: not once is there even a mention of any investigation into any of Harry’s numerous killings.  Again, this would be fine if the film had not chosen such a dark plot and had instead portrayed itself in a less serious manner.  Furthermore, many of the other police characters exhibit a number of unrealistic actions.  A good example of such actions is when, shortly after being attacked by thugs with Molotov cocktails, Callahan is scolded because the car chasing him had crashed into water, with the superior questioning  ‘…can’t you do anything the easy way?’.  I still have absolutely no idea what the ‘easy way’ was supposed to be; pull them over for a speeding ticket?

Thus, whilst Sudden Impact certainly has enjoyable moments, it is better to watch it with a few beers and a ‘go get ‘em Harry’ attitude than to watch it as a serious crime thriller.  And this is something that many original viewers in the early 80’s clearly enjoyed doing: the movie was the most commercially successful in the Dirty Harry series, making over 65 million dollars at the box office.  Even now the Dirty Harry character is still very attractive to audiences wanting a rough and tough hero, and if nothing else it is worth seeing the film for the ‘make my day’ phrase, a saying voted in a 2005 poll to be the 6th most memorable line in cinema history by the American Film Institute.  But viewers should be prepared to be disappointed if they go in expecting the film to be as good as the original Dirty Harry, or anywhere near as good as Eastwood’s modern directorial works. 

David Townsend

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