Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Film Appreciation - Out of Bullets, Out of Luck

Cody Hamman has some troubled Film Appreciation for the final Dirty Harry movie, 1988's The Dead Pool.

Clint Eastwood thought he was done playing San Francisco Inspector Harry Callahan after The Enforcer, the third film in the Dirty Harry franchise, but then 1983's Sudden Impact was made in response to the movie-going audience letting Warner Bros. know they wanted to see Harry back on the big screen. Sudden Impact became the most profitable film the series, so it's no surprise that Warner Bros. wanted Eastwood to do another sequel. The star and the studio made a deal: the studio would back Eastwood's directorial effort Bird, a jazz musician biopic, and in return he would play Harry Callahan for them again.

Directed by Buddy Van Horn, who had worked with Eastwood multiple times previously (including as a stunt coordinator on the previous Dirty Harry films, and as second unit director on Magnum Force), The Dead Pool reached theatres five years after Sudden Impact. And what a difference five years makes. The sequel that followed the most profitable entry in the series ended up being the least profitable entry in the series.

Given The Dead Pool's underwhelming box office, it makes sense that Eastwood would never play Harry Callahan again after this film. But then again, it's almost shocking that thirty years have gone by and Eastwood never ended up returning to the role for a sixth film. There was a rumor that a sixth Dirty Harry movie was in the works a decade ago, but the movie that stirred up those rumors was actually completely unrelated to the franchise. That was Gran Torino.

This sequel was a rush job, which didn't help its quality. It was released just five months after production began, and the finished film has a sort of low rent, haphazard feeling to it. For me, it is by far the least appealing movie in the series, so I can totally understand why it didn't live up to box office expectations. I think this was less a case of the audience getting tired of Harry Callahan and more a sign that viewers were let down by the film he was in.

The Dead Pool was written by a trio of non-professionals, friends of Eastwood's that earned their sole writing credits on this film: Steve Sharon, Durk Pearson, and Sandy Shaw. Online trivia claims that Eastwood knew these people from the "fitness world", and I can believe that, since they worked "Harry goes to the gym" and "Harry goes jogging" scenes into the script. The story they crafted has a couple different plots going on. On one side of things, Harry is finally getting good publicity after successfully bringing down crime lord Lou Janero - but this success comes with a price, as Janero's associates are now gunning for him. Much like the associates of gangster Threlkis in the previous film. On the other side of things, there's a serial killer stalking San Francisco, knocking off public figures like a musician and a film critic. One of the names on this killer's hit list is San Francisco's new golden boy Harry Callahan.

Of course, Harry also works some odd jobs as they come along, including disrupting the armed robbery of a Chinese restaurant and trying to stop a man from setting himself on fire (a fiery variation on the jumper scene from the first film).

Harry's investigation of the murders leads him to the set of a horror movie called Hotel Satan that's being directed by genre filmmaker Peter Swan, who's played by Liam Neeson, sporting a really off-putting ponytail. People involved with this production are playing a game called "the dead pool", where they bet on when and under what sort of circumstances celebrities are going to die, and the celebrities being murdered are among those whose fates are being betted on.

One victim is musician Johnny Squares (Jim Carrey, a few years off from his big breakthrough), who was shooting a musical sequence for Hotel Satan when he was killed in his trailer. We get to see some of this sequence getting filmed - Carrey lip syncing to Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle", which is passed off as being a Johnny Squares song here, in the midst of an homage to The Exorcist. This lip syncing moment is where The Dead Pool really loses me, as I've always found it exceptionally odd that Van Horn and Warner Bros. wanted us to see this as occurring in a reality separate from ours, a reality in which Johnny Squares sings the then-new hit "Welcome to the Jungle" instead of Axl Rose, but sounds just like Axl Rose. The members of Guns N' Roses do appear in the film, attending Squares' funeral and working on the set of Hotel Satan.

Harry gets yet another partner to assist him in his investigations; this time around it's Evan Kim as Al Quan. Finally, an Asian partner, a dynamic that was first considered for The Enforcer. Not only is Quan a likeable guy, but he also finds opportunity to display some martial arts skills. There's also a new love interest of sorts here, TV news reporter Samantha Walker - but even though Walker manages to earn Harry's respect and despite the fact that she's played by the great Patricia Clarkson, her main purpose is to become a damsel in distress at the end.

The Dead Pool isn't a terrible movie, it's just a halfhearted sequel that falls far short of its predecessors. It's the shortest of the series and there's not much worth noting in its 91 minutes. Due to scheduling issues, they couldn't even find a way to give Albert Popwell a role in the movie, making this the one Dirty Harry movie he doesn't appear in.

This one didn't have a popular catchphrase, either, although it does try to replicate the successful use of "Do you feel lucky?" and "Make my day" in the earlier films, with Harry telling villains they're "Shit outta luck" in both the Chinese restaurant scene and the climactic moment.

The standout sequence of the film is one that's too goofy for my taste, a car chase through the streets of San Francisco where the car chasing Harry's vehicle is a small, remote controlled toy that's rigged with explosives. When the main action sequence in a movie involves a sight as silly as that, it really feels like sequelitis has set in. It's sort of a shame that the Dirty Harry movies went from the heights of the first movie and Magnum Force to something as run-of-the-mill as The Dead Pool, but I have followed other franchises to much lower depths than this.

And as disappointing as I find The Dead Pool to be, I still would have gladly watched several more Dirty Harry sequels beyond this if Eastwood had wanted to do them. As it is, it looks like he got out at just right time - when the movies had reached the point of being mediocre, but before they got too bad.

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