Synopsis: Underworld figures are being murdered all over San Francisco. One by one, criminals who have eluded prosecution are getting the justice they deserve, justice you’d think Detective Harry Callahan might approve of with a tight-lipped smile. But if you think so, you’ve misjudged Harry – and so have the killers.
Written by future directors John Milius and Michael Cimino, this Dirty Harry sequel stars Clint Eastwood in his signature role of Callahan, here facing an unexpected kind of lawbreaker: one who carries a badge. Sharpshooting rookie motorcycle policemen have turned vigilante. Their real enemy is the system. But the system is what Harry is sworn to protect. And he does – with Magnum Force.
Magnum Force 7.75
Inspector Harry Callahan: “I’m afraid you’ve misjudged me.”
After all the furore that some critics stirred over ‘Dirty Harry’ and its purportedly fascist approach to law enforcement, Clint Eastwood returned with a sequel that settled the score. ‘Magnum Force’, named both after the Inspector’s trusted handgun, a Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver, and the villain’s Colt Python, put “Dirty” Harry in opposition with true vigilantes – people who would break the law in an attempt to enforce what they consider to be justice.
Harry Callahan: “Briggs, I hate the goddamn system! But until someone comes along with changes that make sense, I’ll stick with it.”
Callahan, despite claims to the contrary, isn’t trying to be judge, jury and executioner; he would much prefer to change the system. But he knows that isn’t the man for the job; he’s a hunter, not a bureaucrat or politician. So he waits patiently for things to change while he continues to mop up the streets to the best of his ability.
And although he crosses the line frequently enough, I have to commend his attitude of trying to work within a system he dislikes instead of tearing it apart out of contempt (evidently, it would be better if her tried to change it, but not everyone has that ability). It would be so easy to say “I don’t like the rules, so I’m not going to follow them”, like so many people do. But he tries not to do that. Operative word: tries.
Of course, in the rest of the series he tends to make up his own rules a fair bit. This may be simply be due to believing so deeply that things should be a certain way that he acts as though they were. This leads him to be taken by surprise when he realizes that he’s crossed a line.
And yet he’s not a stupid man at all – he wouldn’t be a detective if he were, and he proves very good at piecing puzzles together, following hunches. So maybe he’s simply sociopathic. Or perhaps it’s the intention that counts in this case.
Harry Callahan: “You know those guys?”
Early Smith: “They came through the Academy after me. They stick together like flypaper, you know? Everybody thought they were queer for each other.”
Harry Callahan: “Tell you something. If the rest of you could shoot like them, I wouldn’t care if the whole damn department was queer.”
Aside from decent intentions, if flawed in their executions, another attitude of his that I like is that, despite being a hardened prick, Callahan doesn’t hold anyone above anyone else: you’re either law-abiding or you’re not, and you’re either competent or you’re not. In a discussion with his partner about a group of young recruits that everyone thought were gay, Callahan basically tells him that he wouldn’t care if the whole police force was gay if they could all shoot as well as those new kids could.
That’s the basic philosophy of “Dirty” Harry: tough love, yes, but without discrimination. And respect where respect’s due.
And this translates to his partners as well. In the first film, our initial impression is that Callahan’s dislike of his partner may be rooted in some form of racial prejudice. But we soon find out that he just doesn’t like working with new recruits because their inexperience puts lives at risk – including his own. In actuality, he’s completely indifferent about his partners’ gender/race/creed/sexual identity/…etc., so long as he can rely on them.
Walter, Crime Scene Investigator: (Harry and Walter are examining the car of the pimp shot to death) “Now, he’d have to be standing right here, this close. Point-blank range.”
Harry Callahan: “The driver’s license and a hundred dollar bill were out, almost like he was showing it to a traffic cop.”
Walter, Crime Scene Investigator: “Yeah. And from what we have it figures to be someone impersonating a police officer. On the cars at least, it’s been done before. This close it would have to be someone he would never recognize.”
Harry Callahan: “Or never suspect.”
In ‘Magnum Force’, Callahan and his partner try to nail down a killer who, unknown to them at first, passes himself off as a patrol cop. The audience knows, but it doesn’t know the identity of the killer. There are a few red herrings on display, of course, so it’s necessary to follow “Dirty” Harry’s lead to find out exactly who is behind all these killings. And while there aren’t a bevy of obvious clues, thankfully it’s not a very complex affair and it all holds up with ease.
The picture keeps the excitement going by giving Callahan and Smith some other adventures on the side – keeping the episodic nature of the original intact. Some are better than others, but they frequently defy logic – such as the airport sequence or the grocery store robbery, which are set up and delivered in preposterous ways. But these crimes-in-progress serve to delight audiences with “Dirty” Harry’s “shoot-first, ask questions later” approach to policing and, thus, are more entertainment than life as fiction.
Similarly, to tap into the audience’s hunger for this ballsy approach, the filmmakers decided to start the film with a rehash of Callahan’s infamous speech from the first film (albeit in edited form here). This cheap-looking and somewhat redundant opening credits sequence channelled the key elements that made “Dirty” Harry popular; they knew that people were thrilled with Harry’s attitude and they decided to give them exactly what they wanted. Reminding them of the first film was a good way to go.
Harry Callahan: “A man’s GOT to know his limitations.”
Still, I would enjoy ‘Magnum Force’ more if it had been shorter. While all the side-stories help to flesh out the character and, thus, are much appreciated, it makes the film a good 20-30 too long for my taste. Of course, the final showdown in the empty waterfront warehouse doesn’t help one bit, because it is extremely lengthy and doesn’t provide nearly as many thrills as one would like – not just today, in our hyperactive modern world, but even when I first saw it, back in the ’80s. So the episodic aspect of the film was a mixed-bag this time around.
On the plus side, the film is fun to watch because of all the up-and-coming young stars of the day that are found here. The team of young recruits alone showed off future stars Tim Matheson (Animal House/1941/Fletch), David Soul (Starsky and Hutch), and Robert Urich (Spencer: for Hire. S.W.A.T., Vega$) in top form, but there is also a small cameo by Suzanne Somers, who would later find fame in ‘Three’s Company’ and ‘Step by Step’, with her top off (no joke). Say what you will, but you have to give casting director Nessa Hyams credit for recognizing talent.
Harry Callahan: “Couldn’t of happened to a nicer bunch of guys.”
And while ‘Magnum Force’ is hardly Masterpiece Theatre, there’s a reason it was even more popular than the first one: not only did it piggy-back on the former’s word-of-mouth successfully, but it was also put together by a few Tinseltown shining stars such as writers John Milius and Michael Cimino (who both went on to direct a couple of classics of their own!) and a bunch of relatively dependable industry people, such as director Ted Post (amongst others). With so much going for it right at the onset, it’s no wonder that the film turned out as good as it did, leading to yet another sequel.
All this being said, ‘Magnum Force’ remains my fourth favourite film of the series. While one might conclude by this that I don’t like it much, the reality is that its ranking is only due to an unusually high enthusiasm for the other three; ‘Magnum Force’ is an excellent film, an above-average one I’d say. Its length bogs things down too much for me, but, with a little trim, I’d probably enjoy it as much as ‘The Enforcer’ and ‘The Dead Pool’ (‘Dirty Harry’, however, is hard to best ).
As for ‘Sudden Impact’…? Well, that’s another story altogether. We’ll get to it soon enough, though. If only for posterity’s sake.