The Dead Pool (1988)

The 411 on the 415

In this star-studded fifth and final Dirty Harry movie from Clint Eastwood the central case concerns a morbid game, called the dead pool, where the players try to guess which celebrity will die next. Horror movie director Peter Swan (Liam Neeson) is one of the participants, but when the star of his music video, and coincidentally one of the names on his list, rocker Johnny Squares (Jim Carrey), suddenly dies from an overdose, he becomes a suspect. Along the way Harry runs into dedicated reporter Samantha Walker (Patricia Clarkson), who takes a kind eye to his unkind face, while struggling with the media's role in the violent modern world.

Word on the street

(Placeholder for funny or memorable line from movie.
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Rap sheet

It's five years later. 1988, the year after the universe gave us another iconic hardcore cop: RoboCop. Dirty Harry is starting to look fairly burned out, and it's reasonable to wonder if there's still a place in the world for these movies. That feeling will not dissipate during the opening of The Dead Pool, which comes across like an alternate credit sequence from The Streets of San Francisco.

Then we get into more pressing issues: Why is Jim Carrey miming to a Guns N' Roses song? Why is he acting like he's in Batman and Robin? (The only Batman movie worse that the one he was actually in.) And why is Oscar Schindler directing an Exorcist knockoff!? It's all very mysterious. Of course, we're on the set of a music video, so it's all just fun and games. The question is, do you really want fun and games in your Dirty Harry movie?

Once again the script is the major issue here.

So there's a dead pool. People are betting on what celebrity will die next, but suddenly the people on that list are being murdered. Could somebody be trying to rig the game? That's plot 1. Then it turns out that there's a killer trying to frame one of the dead pool players, because of some unknown vendetta. That's plot 2. Then Harry's name shows up on the list, and simultaneously a gangster boss is trying to kill him. That's plot 3, and a bit of plot 1, but mostly irrelevant to plot 2. Then we have the reporter trying to get the scoop on Harry's story, while struggling with the way modern media is obsessed with blood and death. That's plot 4, but also ties into plot 1, but again, it's completely irrelevant to plot 2. And guess what plot strain turns out to be the true plot of The Dead Pool? Yup, number 2. The one plot strand which is always at odds with all the other potentially interesting stories.

The dead pool story is dull, but it could have worked, if we were introduced to the participants and they turned out to be cool, interesting individuals. Then we could start to suspect which one of them is trying to rig the game. Instead The Dead Pool turns out to be about an obsessed horror fan, and the actual dead pool part of the story is more or less irrelevant.

There's also potential in the connection between Harry and the female reporter. Jumping into bed with enemy no. 1, the media, is almost worse than sleeping with a suspect! Of course, this is inexplicably the one and only film where Harry suddenly has good press, which directly works against that conflicted cop/reporter love story.

Meanwhile the film flirts with the media's (and the public's) fascination with blood and gore. Another interesting angle, especially when it's tied into the cop/reporter story. She's conflicted about the media providing these bloody stories, Harry is conflicted about dating her, meanwhile he's the one supplying the bloody stories she's conflicted about covering. Look, it all ties together. That story would have made for a great movie, because it would force Harry to take a good look at himself. The drama would reach its crescendo during the scene where Harry is called out to a situation where a man wants to set himself on fire, unless he gets on TV. Harry plays Samantha's cameraman and suddenly the two would-be lovers are standing side by side, literally facing her professional dilemma.

Unfortunately every good element in The Dead Pool is a red herring. None of the stories play out the way I've laid out above. The film only uses these wonderful interlocking conflicts to distract itself from the real plot: An obsessed horror movie fan with a restraining order trying to kill a director, who doesn't want to read his script. Funny how those raving madmen with no connection to reality, suddenly become very apt at navigating the real world, when they have a murder spree to unleash, by the way.

Oh, lest we forget: This week's disconnected-pointless-look-how-cool-Harry-is scene comes 22 minutes into the story. It features Harry reading a fortune cookie for a robber in a Chinese restaurant ("It says... You're shit outta luck!"), and some kung fu from Harry's new Asian partner.

I'm getting tired complaining over Harry's incompetence, so here's the quick lowdown, before we wrap this up: In The Dead Pool Harry's almost killed in a mob hit because he doesn't realize two cars following him might be a bad thing. And he manages to get blown up by a toy car filled with explosives, after failing to make his getaway during a 20 minute car chase. Let me reiterate: We're talking about a chase between Harry in a real car for humans and a FREAKIN' TOY CAR! And he LOSES!

But the Coup de grâce, the most disheartening moment, comes during the final showdown when the killer orders Harry to drop his gun, while he's threatening to kill a woman with a knife. What does Harry do? He complies. Dirty Harry Callahan drops his gun at the command of a madman with nothing more than a knife.... Guys, why you gotta do me like this? It's like you don't even know Harry any more.

Final report

The Dead Pool, despite being the shortest of the Dirty Harry movies, is a chore to get through. It's a dull, unfocused story, with a dull ending, full of wasted potential. An embarrassing finishing to a decidedly shaky franchise.


Sudden Impact (1983)

The 411 on the 415

It's 1983, the year of Return of the Jedi, and the Dirty Harry franchise has come out of retirement to tell the story about a series of brutal murders. A young woman is wreaking revenge on the punks who gang-raped her and her sister, by seeking them out one by one, and shooting them in the head and in the balls.

Word on the street

"Go ahead, make my day."

"Listen, punk. To me you're nothin' but dogshit, you understand? And a lot of things can happen to dogshit. It can be scraped up with a shovel off the ground. It can dry up and blow away in the wind. Or it can be stepped on and squashed. So take my advice and be careful where the dog shits ya!"

Rap sheet

Two lovers are getting it on in a car parked by the bay at night. Suddenly, in the middle of the moaning and rustling of clothes there's the distinct sound of a gun being cocked. Moments later two shots ring out, and just like that we've got another case for Dirty Harry.

Pop quiz, hotshot. What follows next? Is it A) time for Harry to get right to it, take on this case, wrap it up in a quick, and be home in time for cornflakes? Or do we B) once again need establish Harry's badassery in an unnecessary show of force?

That would be B. Not only that, but we start the film with a trial, where the judge throws out clear evidence of murder, because Harry didn't have proper cause for a search. He didn't even beat anybody up this time, he just had a hunch, and it turned out to be correct! Maybe San Francisco's problem isn't Harry's excessive use of violence, but the utter ineptitude of the city's prosecutors? So after that lengthy scene, including a confrontation between Harry and the recently released punks, we get the Harry-is-a-badass scene, when he walks into a half empty diner to disturb a robbery in progress. Four heavily armed men have inexplicably decided to rob the cash-register of this small establishment, plus steal from a handful of patrons. What's the score going to be? $15 and a Junior Mint? Anyway, it allows Harry to burst into the place and say his famous "Go ahead, make my day" line, which everyone thinks is from the first film, and kill everybody. Then Harry walks into the middle of a mob-wedding to give the bride's father a heart attack (Hey, that's Frank Pentangeli from The Godfather II). And after ALL that, Harry finally shows up at the crime scene from the cold open, which fells like an hour and a half ago (it's 17 minutes).

Most of this feels completely redundant. This is simply NOT efficient storytelling. The whole point of this opening act is to establish the initial murder, and send Harry off on a BS assignment to a safe little town, where he can't make trouble. Of course, by coincidence, he ends up right in the middle of a hornet's nest, with several murders connected to the first one. Beautiful, let's do it! It takes the film 45 minutes to get to that point! I haven't even mentioned the obligatory the-captain-yells-at-Harry scene, or the two different attempts on Harrys life, before he's despatched to Redneckville.

Why not tie the whole thing together? Harry disturbs a robbery. He kills the culprits, and one of them turns out to be the gangster boss' son. The gangsters put a price on his head. The captain sends him off to a small town. He says goodbye to his partner, who must now investigate a new murder on his own, but not before giving Harry a few details he can use later. Boom, done. 20 minutes max. What we have now is SO cumbersome. It's like Dirty Harry can't get out of his own way to tell a real story.

The only thing keeping me really interested in Sudden Impact is the subplot, where we follow the ice-cold, determined blonde. This is our killer, we know that early on. She visits her catatonic sister, she talks about "an event", and we see flashbacks to what happened years ago. It's pretty hardcore, and fairly intriguing. Although the lack of scope makes this neat little revenge story feel like something Colombo should handle in a quick episode. Of course, given the sexual implications of the story, and Harry's involvement with the killer, that wouldn't be appropriate.

For me the real heart of the story, and where it becomes interesting, is the potential relationship between Harry and the killer. Perhaps it had been better, if we didn't know this girl to be the killer quite as early. It would have been fun to see a version of this story, where Harry is genuinely reconsidering his life as a cop (perhaps he was wounded in an attempt on his life, before he left San Francisco), and at this crucial moment, he meets a kindred sprit. He falls in love, and only then do we discover she's the killer. That would create an interesting conflict for the character. As it stands now, the film is in too much of a hurry to build that scenario, it's got too many cartoonish moments, and too much overconfident grandstanding from Harry. Less clutter, and a bit more focus on Harry as a person would have allowed Sudden Impact to fully explore the potential of the setup. You could even tie it into him reconsidering his sexist ways after having lost a female partner in the previous film, which would add even more dimension to the current killing spree.

Alas, that is not the kind of film we're dealing with. Rather, it's the kind of film where - after those 45 minutes of crap I complained about earlier - we get this scene: The moment Harry arrives in Hick Town he comes across a bank robbery in progress. The robber flees on a motorcycle, and Harry hijacks a bus full of senior citizens to take pursuit - in a stunning display of slapstick that wouldn't feel out of place in The Benny Hill Show. All this to let the Chief in town know that Harry is a lose cannon, which let's them pick up right where Harry and his captain left off. Oh, great.

I'm being a little harder on the film than it really deserves. Truth be told, Sudden Impact is pretty entertaining, in a trashy way, and I guess back then - with the previous Dirty Harry movie a faint 7-year-old memory - it was necessary to reestablish the character and his faults. So even though the film is top-heavy, features some off-key moments (the bus-chase), and some absurd overacting (from Pat Hingle as the Chief, and Paul Drake and Audrie Neenan as two of the rapists, in particular) it's not a complete disaster.

Final report

For the first time in the franchise Clint Eastwood picks up the megaphone and finally directs himself. Like so many other movies from Eastwood the result is a decent-looking, fairly entertaining, but not great film. It's more fun to watch than the first one, and the story is better than the main plot of the third film, but the second one remains my favorite. Still, I feel they haven't quite created that perfect Dirty Harry film yet. Maybe fifth time is the charm?


The Enforcer (1976)

The 411 on the 415

The third Dirty Harry movie is the last from the 70's, and is there a more fitting way to say goodbye to that decade than with a revolution? Our favorite renegade policeman faces two formidable opponents here. First and foremost a group of militant revolutionaries, who plan to blackmail the city of San Fran through threats of violence. Second, Harry must face off against gender equality, as he breaks in a new partner: Kate Moore (Tyne Daly)! That's right, she's one of them females.

Word on the street

"It's a war isn't it? I guess I never really understood that."

"She wants to play lumberjack, she's going to have to learn to handle her end of the log."

Rap sheet

There is a formula to some film series. You expect a teaser action sequence at the beginning of a James Bond movie, for example, and that's the way it should be, but I get annoyed by the constant need to reaffirm Dirty Harry's bad boy credentials at the start of every one of these films, with a disconnected action scene. At the start of The Enforcer Harry arrives at a hostage situation in a liquor store. He drives his car through the storefront, jumps out and kills everyone, with complete disregard for the hostages' safety, and the fact that he should have been killed four times over by the bad guys. It's just too cartoonish.

Once again the boss comes down hard on him - this time he's played by Mission: Impossible alumni Bradford Dillman - once again Harry is surprised that no one will tolerate his level of violence, once again he's transferred to another department. At this point, I'm pretty much out of patience with that routine. Oh, well. New viewers will have no trouble keeping up that's for sure.


Before we go through the familiar song and dance mentioned above, we get a cold open, introducing the bad guys: The People's Revolutionary Strike Force! They're fairly creepy, but not as effective as they should be, and the film only has itself to blame for that. Why, for example, does it feel the need to point out that only a few suckers in the group are true revolutionaries? The main guys are just playing along - they're really in it for the money. Seems like it would be way more scary with a band of true believers who would sacrifice anything for their cause. They steal rocket launchers and explosives! They bomb the effing police station! They even kidnap the mayor! These are potentially pretty horrifying events, and yet the film never quite manages to establish any kind of city-under-siege feeling, or any sense that there's an overarching goal to these acts.

Simply put: The film doesn't care enough about the bad guys to establish them as a threat. The bombing of the police station is almost a throwaway gag, while the subsequent chase for a silly pimp-looking suspect gets the full 5 minute handheld-jumping-over-roofs treatment, complete with jazz score and - this being the '70s - a brief stop at a porn film set. Even the final showdown, when Harry discovers that the bad guys are holed up in Alcatraz, feels a little underwhelming.

In the context of the Dirty Harry universe, the most interesting aspect of The Enforcer is the female touch. Early in the film, as punishment, Harry is called in to join a review board for new recruits. Naturally he gets very upset, when he learns that they plan to hire a specific number of women to the force. He gets even more upset, when the first candidate is a woman with zero experience.

Having Harry argue against women on the force is a good move. His observations aren't wrong, but neither is the allegation that he's a dinosaur. Forcing a character so defined by his masculinity to accept a woman as his equal is good drama. Perhaps that part of the story plays out a bit predictably, but it's still thoroughly enjoyable.


Tyne Daly is a good choice for the part of his new partner Kate Moore, and luckily the character isn't just there for show. Eventually Harry warms to her, they even manage to exchange a few harmless sexual innuendos, and she helps him at a crucial point in the investigation. She also gets to kill the second to last bad guy, and save the mayor! In the ultimate case of equal opportunity irony she also gets to die, same as every male partner Harry ever had.

The final image of the movie, Harry standing over her dead body, brings a welcomed sense of loss we rarely get to experience in these films. This one really stings.

Final report

The Enforcer is a step down from the second film, but it's still a lot of fun, and the new elements make it seem fresh. Clint Eastwood is always fun to watch, and challenging his macho image like this suits the character very well.

After three Dirty Harry movies in 5 years it's time for a break. It would be 7 years before he returned to the silver screen.


Magnum Force (1973)

The 411 on the 415

Dirty Harry Callahan is back on the job, but he's sidelined and forced to work a BS stakeout operation by his unimpressed lieutenant. That is until a series of execution-style murders calls for all hands on deck. Career criminals, pimps, and lowlifes are the targets, and Harry suspects that a few young motorcycle cops are responsible.

Word on the street

"I never had to take my gun out of its holster once. I'm proud of that."
"Well, you're a good man, lieutenant. A good man always knows his limitations..."

"What does a girl have to do, to go to bed with you?"
"Try knocking on the door."

Rap sheet

The opening of Magnum Force is simple, beautiful, and effective. A riot scene in front of a courthouse, where yet another sleazy businessman (but really crook) has been acquitted. He drives off with his lawyer in a limousine, impervious to the cries of justice from the crowd. Moments later a motorcycle cop pulls him over. And then, in the middle of this seemingly inconspicuous traffic stop, the cop pulls out his gun and executes everyone in the car. As the last death twitches ride through the blood-soaked bodies, the cop calmly walks back to his motorcycle. Now THAT is pretty damn dirty.

So much in Magnum Force works better than in the first Dirty Harry movie.

We've got a clear, well-defined menace, a better sense of Harry as a person, a more credible work situation, and even a more or less competent police department. We get a proper foil in the vindictive and slightly incompetent Lt. Briggs, played with quiet menace by Hal Holbrook, and there's a real sense of threat from the young motorcycle studs - who appear to outperform Harry, even on the shooting range. As the story progresses Harry - the man, not just the cop - becomes a direct target, in a rather exhilarating way. So much so that he's even forced to step up and display some moderately advanced detective skills!

It doesn't even stop there. Magnum Force also manages to pose some interesting questions. Sure, Harry is quick to solve any situation with lead, but he's still more or less inside the law's comfort zone, at least compared to the bad guys. It's ironic and intriguing to see Harry argue for order and rules, in the face of total anarchy and lawlessness. "I hate the goddamn system!" he says at one point. "But until someone comes along with changes that make sense, I'll stick with it."

A strong story, with a clear bad guy helps this movie immensely, but there's still too much clutter for my taste. Fine, Harry is on loan to a stakeout operation - we don't need to see the stakeout, or the drama that plays out when the place is robbed at gunpoint.

Does Harry really need to stumble over yet another crime in progress in a the middle of a fast food pit stop? Does he need to dress up as an airline pilot, temporarily commandeer a passenger plane, and take out two hijackers with deadly force, to once again demonstrate his pertinacity for violence? Do we really need the scene where the awfully cute 4-foot-nothing Asian neighbor throws herself at him (are they worried we think he's gay)?

At some point the bad guys decide to eliminate a pimp. Go for it, but we don't need to see a long sequence, where a girl gets into a cab, tries to hide some money on her body, is surprised by said pimp, and finally killed with drain-cleaner, to establish the character. The pink pimpmobile pretty much does the same thing in two seconds flat.

And while I appreciate that they try to organize a decoy bad guy for us, they're not fooling anybody, and subsequently we're forced to waste more time by seeing Harry have dinner with his old friend's ex-wife, when he suspects that his friend has gone off the reservation.

Oh, and one last thing: At some point the filmmakers will have to make up theirs minds about whether the public knows Harry, or not. He can't both be a 'headline-grabbing menace to society', 'the shooting champion five years in a row', while being a stranger to his neighbors, and an unfamiliar face to seasoned criminals.

Final report

Despite a few reservation, Magnum Force is a solid, engaging film, and a vast improvement over the original. The iconic Dirty Harry character is starting to take shape, and things are beginning to get interesting.


Dirty Harry (1971)

The 411 on the 415

We meet rough copper Harry 'Dirty Harry' Callahan (Clint Eastwood) for the first time, while madman sniper Scorpio (Andrew Robinson) holds the city of San Francisco hostage, demanding $100.000, or he'll kill random people. Despite being on the verge of capture several times, he continues to evade the police, and Harry gets more and more frustrated. Later Scorpio kidnaps a 14-year old girl and leaves her in a hole with no air, and finally he hijacks a whole school bus. Harry is not amused.

Word on the street

"I know what you're thinking, punk. You're thinking "did he fire six shots or only five?" Now to tell you the truth I forgot myself in all this excitement. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and will blow you head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself a question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, punk?"

Rap sheet

Dirty Harry is a classic, full of memorable moments. It's one of those movies you're supposed to like, but how good is it really? To be perfectly honest, it's not that great. No doubt, Clint Eastwood has created an iconic character, and when he barks those famous lines, teeth gritted, eyes squinting, he's as cool as they come. It's fun quoting that "I know what you're thinking"-speech, for sure, but I wonder how many people forget that it comes from a completely random, disconnected scene that only serves to show how cool Harry is, and how quickly he's willing to pull out his gun. In a rather clumsy manner, narratively speaking, I might add.

By today's standards, set by the likes of Vic Mackey (of The Shield), Harry isn't even all that dirty. Truth be told, he's a bit of a puppy. So he shoots a few bad guys, pisses off a superior officer or two, but that's about it. He gets a bit rough with the bad guy during an arrest, but that hardly qualifies as dirty, or even all that unreasonable, he is, after all, trying to save a 14-year-old girl.

Harry is a beast from a different time, and much of the reason for his success lies beyond my reach, outside of the present context. Regardless of the time frame, however, Dirty Harry is not a very good cop, and he's caught in a fairly substandard crime story. In fact incompetence is the keyword in this first Dirty Harry movie.

The shooter fumbles the second kill, by failing to notice that there's a cop on alert on every corner in the city, and he also manages to ignore a helicopter sneaking up on him! Luckily the police is just as incompetent, so he gets away. By his third kill the police have him cold, and only extreme incompetence prevents them from shutting him down completely. During the investigation Dirty Harry is almost beat up by four random guys, because he doesn't realize he looks like a Peeping Tom while pursuing a suspect, and it's up to his cannon-fodder partner to save him. Oh, and the sissy bad guy beats him up too.

Although Andrew Robinson looks creepy as hell, his Scorpio is all over the place. Is he really a madman? Criminal genius? A sociopath? Is he in it for the money? The thrills? Or some sort of perverted sexual desire? His level of insanity and incompetence seems to vary from one scene to the next. It's difficult to regard him as a serious threat, when you get the feeling that at any moment he'll put on a bunny suit and masturbate into a cactus.

This is perhaps also the reason why the film's attempt to set up a mano-a-mano situation between Harry and Scorpio never comes into fruition, because we have no idea what makes the bad guy tick, and there isn't a concrete personal vendetta between the two, beyond the perfunctory "cop hates killer, killer hates cop" routine. On top of that the film is forced to bend over backwards to make sure the incompetent killer still roams the streets, despite being caught red-handed shooting at people. Several times! Even in the skewed reality of a Hollywood movie that seems like a bit of a reach.

So, to sum up: Not only does Harry get beat up by the killer, and random people on the street, but by the law as well. Still, the flabbergasted look on his face, when he's told he can't torture suspects, almost makes you feel sorry for him. That can't be what they were going for.

Dirty Harry ends on a final image which suggests that Harry has become too dirty for police work, and so he throws his shield away in a downer, 70s style ending. I would have loved if everything leading up to that moment had supported that dramatic gesture.

Final report

I postulate that the idea of Dirty Harry is far more tantalizing than the actual movie. It's not immediately obvious to me why this film generated so many sequels and earned a place in pop-culture, but I guess the same could be said about James Bond. Sure, Harry is quite scary when you're looking down the barrel of that Magnum, but if you're a halfway decent criminal that gun will most likely not be pointing at you. The odds of escaping the wrath of Harry Callahan are quite good, so you go right ahead and feel lucky, punk.