It would be far too easy to trash a film like The Dead Pool with the same nonchalance Harry Callahan affects, raising his comedy-sized gun towards some stereotypically hirsute enemy in a gesture marked more by disinterest than contempt. A blow-by-blow account of the various holes in the flimsy plot would be boring to read and far more torturous to write. That the police do absolutely nothing to protect the victims or at least use them in some morally ambiguous and (potentially) dramatic trap for the killer, even though they have a list of his intended targets from practically the start of the film, ultimately makes the plot seem completely ridiculous. It’s also worth mentioning, perhaps as an aside, that Callahan kills more people than the actual murderer does without so much as a resigned sigh which makes you wonder who the real psychopath is in this most sluggish of shoot-em-ups.
The film’s implausibility is brought to the sheer apex of absurdity by the time that the now infamous car chase rolls around. Dirty H. is chased by a remote controlled car laden with enough explosives to destroy a Cadillac, but it’s not the idea of an ageing cop being pursued around the heights of San Francisco by a deadly super toy that bothers me, it’s probably the least turgid action sequence in the movie, it’s just that the whole thing seems like a parody. Even Dirty H. himself seems aware of this, wearing a look of perpetual bafflement as northern California goes mad with explosive toy cars. As he stumbles from one predictable gunfight to the next we begin to empathise with him on a whole different level that actually transcends the standard hero/audience divide in a technical move that is almost Artaudian; we are beaten into identifying with D. H. Callahan’s existential torment and boredom completely.
Boredom though is exactly what I wanted to avoid here. Lets face it, films like The Dead Pool are supposed to be a laugh. Anyone who takes them seriously does so at their own peril. This brand of action movie – that actually seems to be on the wane these days – presents us with an orgy of bullets, explosions and corny lines all in the name of escapism. Eastwood has made enough stand-out films – especially in his later days – that we should see expeditions like these as detours he’s entitled to cash in on, whilst there are few things more annoying than the sort of person who will sit alongside you as you watch one of these films – trying to escape whatever form of monotony you are trying to escape – going on and on about the various implausibilities and absurdities that litter the plot. Faux-critical deconstructions such as these simply serve to elevate the ego of whoever expresses them whilst everyone else either rolls their eyes or contemplates the future of their friendship with the perpetrator.
Treating a film like The Dead Pool too seriously is, to borrow a phrase, like obliterating a soufflé with a sledgehammer. If you like your entertainment light then what’s wrong with films like those in the Dirty Harry franchise – the first of which, I would argue, being a genuinely interesting film. The thing is though that that The Dead Pool aspires to far more than light-entertainment – it actually seeks to utter some comment on the terrors and degeneration of the modern age. The film condemns the omnipotence of the mass media and the morbid fascinations implicit in the seedier realms of celebrity culture and while I am not saying that it succeeds in being prescient or even interesting in this way, it definitely aspires to something more than saccharine escapism.
Social commentary and politics are by no means alien to the Dirty Harry series. The original Dirty Harry provided a challenging counterpoint to the pervading left-wing cultural values attributed to San Francisco at the time of its release and although a lot of its politics are highly suspect – at least to a liberal sensibility – its uncompromising celebration of that peculiarly American vision of gun-slinging justice does make for an unsettling, if not interesting work of cinema. The problem with The Dead Pool is that whilst it obviously wants to say something about the madness of the mass media it fails completely to find its voice.
In this sense The Dead Pool is a really odd movie because its politics actually serve to defeat the film itself. Dirty Harry’s confronting of celebrity culture presents him with a problem that his beloved .44 is actually incapable of solving. The actual bad guy in the movie is not really the crazed killer, as he actually has a motive beyond the perverse need to inflict pain; fame and the assertion of his own identity. In fact, I would argue that we are invited to see the real bad guy as the many-headed monster of the media which is shown not only as being far more callow and cynical than the killer, but actually as the a destructive machine that creates the psychotic murderer. We don’t even get to see the face of the killer until the very end of the film. He is ultimately unimportant, just a faceless man of the crowd – his identity usurped by the images on the T.V. screens that mediate his lonely relationship with the external world.
Harry is the complete opposite to the killer because he is the archetypal man of action and decision. Throughout the film, Harry shatters windscreens, windows and cameras – he is not a watcher, he’s a doer. His status as a complete and autonomous individual is facilitated by his refusal to compromise and perhaps this is what we are supposed to take away from the film – that the only way to protect one’s self from the corrupting forces of the media is to refuse to comply just as Harry does. The problem with this though is that if we accept that the film’s real bad-guy is the nebulous figure of the mass media then Harry actually fails to defeat it and is eventually exploited by it. We can read the closing scene as an actual defeat of the iconoclastic hero. After shooting the killer in the chest with a harpoon, Harry walks away as the flashing cameras of the TV crews descend on the crime scene. The dirtiest man in the SFPD can do nothing but turn his back having given the baying cameras exactly what they want – more scandal, blood and death. His long trusted values of action and rough-justice fail him in the end. Harry is made equal with the killer in a cynical, postmodern age where morals don’t figure in the divide between good and bad entertainment.
Dirty H. Callahan’s failure at the end of The Dead Pool is ultimately the failure of the maverick cop genre to be anything other than politically incorrect light-entertainment. Harry’s worldview, governed by his eye-for-an-eye attitude, is rendered obsolete as is the rugged-individuality of the conventional action hero. That Clint went on to make a film as good as Unforgiven which is a genuinely great example of cinema capable of deconstructing not only the western genre, but also the action man persona, excuses him from The Dead Pool’s failure as a vaguely sad film trapped in the limits of an embarrassing genre celebrating outdated values. Perhaps though, this is a step too far and I’ve only succeeded in becoming one of those irritating wielders of sledgehammers and soufflés. Maybe it’s best just to let Dirty old Mr. Callahan have the last words with perhaps his best line from The Dead Pool, “opinions are like assholes, everyone has one.”