Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Film Appreciation - A Man's Got to Know His Limitations

Cody Hamman takes a shot at showing Film Appreciation for the 1973 Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force.

When the Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force begins, you might start to worry that you're in for a follow-up that's formulaic and walking the line of becoming too silly. Coming along two years after its predecessor, the film opens with a title sequence focused on Inspector Harry Callahan's iconic .44 Magnum handgun and ends with the voice of Clint Eastwood repeating parts of his most famous lines from the first movie, even asking the audience, "Do you feel lucky?"

From there, the early structure is almost identical to Dirty Harry's: villain commits murder, Harry arrives on the scene to investigate, then he goes to get some lunch and has his meal interrupted when he has to deal with some other criminals. At least the first murder wasn't done in a swimming pool, like the first kill in Dirty Harry was. Magnum Force saves the swimming pool for the next time we check in on a villain, when a bunch of career criminals and the topless girls attending their pool party (one of those girls is Suzanne Somers, before Three's Company) are surprised by a bomb and mowed down with a submachine gun.

The threat of silliness comes into the picture with the fact that Harry gets his lunch not at the place across from the bank from the first movie, but at a place in an airport that has been opened up by a former fellow San Francisco police officer. This puts Harry in the right place to stop an airplane hijacking - which he does by dressing up in a pilot's uniform and getting on the plane, having to take out the two terrorists before takeoff. Harry putting on a different uniform to talk his way into such a large scale situation is a warning sign of sequelitis, an indication that the franchise is willing to go bigger and more ridiculous. This isn't a situation you'd expect a streetwise detective to encounter during the course of an average workday. The first shot of Harry in the pilot's uniform is played for laughs - dangerous territory. Thankfully, the sequence goes by quickly and things come back down to earth... and once it does that, Magnum Force proves itself to be an excellent sequel.

Each film in the Dirty Harry series was helmed by a different director, and this time around it was veteran television director Ted Post, who had previously worked with Eastwood on Hang 'Em High and multiple episodes of Rawhide, working from a screenplay written by John Milius (who did uncredited work on the first movie) and Michael Cimino. Yes, the same Cimino who directed The Deer Hunter and the infamous, epic financial failure Heaven's Gate. I was familiar with The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate before realizing Cimino co-wrote Magnum Force, and was surprised to find out that the guy who made those would have ever worked on a studio sequel.

Magnum Force is very much a response to the public's reaction to Dirty Harry, and not just in the way of that title sequence fan service and the familiar structure early on. The film deals with the fact that there were some audience members who felt, as some other characters in the film did, that Harry crossed the line in the way he dealt with criminals. That he was a fascist vigilante who abused the power of his job. Crafting the story, Milius set out to show that Harry is a good guy who has problems with the system but is willing to play by the rules for the most part - and that he's not a cold-blooded murderer. He doesn't fire on criminals until there's danger, until his life is really on the line. Milius does this while presenting villains who are exactly what those audience members accused Harry of being: police officers who are merciless killers, having taken it upon themselves to be judge, jury, and executioners. They don't need to be in danger to kill, they only need to know that the person in front of them is a criminal. They shoot criminals who are just sitting in their cars, they mow down the people at that pool party, and they are perfectly willing to kill other cops if there's a chance they could be turned in.

Which, of course, puts Harry's life at risk, because he takes it upon himself to figure out who is killing all these criminals - and the motorcycle cop, a friend of Harry's, who was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Harry starts looking into this case before he's even officially assigned to it; when we first catch back up with him, he's been put on stakeout duty with his new partner Early Smith (Felton Perry) because Lieutenant Briggs (Hal Holbrook) is tired of the SFPD getting police brutality complaints about Harry when he's out on the job. Briggs has his own complaints about Harry's methods, and is proud of the fact that he never had to pull his gun from its holster in the days when he was out on the streets. You'd be correct to guess that Briggs will have to pull his gun out of its holster before the end of the movie.

Through his detective work, Harry is eventually able to deduce that the killer cops in question are a quartet of rookie traffic cops who have been close pals since being at the academy together and are now operating as their own little death squad. They are Phil Sweet (Tim Matheson), John Davis (David Soul), Alan "Red" Astrachan (Kip Niven), and Mike Grimes (Robert Urich), and the scenes when Harry interacts with them during his investigation are chilling. This bunch isn't as intense or insane as the first movie's Scorpio and there isn't as much emotional investment here as there was in Dirty Harry simply because Scorpio was such an appalling character that you can't wait to see him get his comeuppance, but they're solid villains in their own right, even if we don't get to know very much about them.

Introductions come before Harry knows these rookies are guilty, at a time when the prime suspect is his depressed, newly divorced buddy McCoy (Mitchell Ryan) - a pretty obvious red herring. When Harry finds the quartet doing some target practice in a darkened corner of the shooting range, and seeing these mild-mannered killers hanging out, practicing together, lurking in the background while Harry takes his shots at the target, capable of shooting him in the back of the head at any moment... It's unnerving stuff.

The killers will eventually confront Harry and offer him the chance to join them, telling him that he's either with them or against them. Harry's response to the offer: "I'm afraid you've misjudged me."

Magnum Force doesn't have any iconic dialogue on the level of Dirty Harry's Magnum speech, but that "misjudged" line is a memorable one, as is the book-ending line of "A man's got to know his limitations." It doesn't sound like much out of context, but within the film it's used in a badass way.

At 124 minutes, this is the longest of the five Harry Callahan films, but it doesn't feel bloated. It moves along at a good pace and is action packed - the killer cops rack up a sizable body count, and the film cuts back and forth between them killing people and Harry doing his job. Once Harry dives into the investigation, things get captivating, and it all builds up to some climactic stalk and chase action. After a shaky start, Magnum Force finds its own footing and becomes truly great.

There's something else in there that was a response to some viewers - during his miniscule down time, Harry is seduced by a neighbor in his apartment building. This adds nothing at all to the story, it's just there to appease the fans who, for whatever reason, wanted to see Harry get seduced.

I'd rather watch him take out bad guys, and the film delivers plenty of that, too.

No comments:

Post a Comment