Synopsis: Sensitive to outcries of police brutality, the superiors of San Francisco Detective Harry Callahan have sent him on an out-of-town assignment until things cool down. But wherever Harry goes, things just get hotter.
Clint Eastwood hits the mark again in Sudden Impact. Callahan’s older, dirtier and the world hasn’t gotten better. Which means this fourth Dirty Harry movie (which Eastwood also directs) is explosively exciting, as Callahan tracks a traumatized rape victim (Sondra Locke) coldly gunning down her bygone attackers. Through the five Callahan films, the lawman always struck a powerful chord. But Sudden Impact is particularly potent, fueled by the line that became a national catchphrase: “Go ahead. Make my day.”
Sudden Impact 6.0
‘Sudden Impact’ will always be most renowned for its extremely popular catchphrase “Go ahead, make my day”. It became so popular that even President Reagan used it. Sadly, half the world thinks that it originated from the original ‘Dirty Harry’. Since half the world doesn’t know that there were five Dirty Harry films, it’s not saying much, but it’s indicative of the blurry place ‘Sudden Impact’ holds in film history.
And it’s hardly surprising. While it was the most successful box office performer of the whole series, it is also generally the weakest-rated one. And deservedly so: the story is bland, the writing is uninspired, the acting is abominable, the direction is lackadaisical and the so-called thrills are limp.
In fact, it doesn’t really feel like a “Dirty” Harry film at all. It didn’t when I first saw it and it still doesn’t now.
The sad reality is that the script was never intended to be a “Dirty” Harry picture. It was originally supposed to be a vehicle for Sondra Locke (who was Clint Eastwood’s partner at the time), and it was contrived into a “Dirty” Harry film after the fact, presumably after much pressure on Eastwood from the studio (which would also serve to explain why he got to direct, received a HUGE cut of the grosses and got all of his regulars cast in it ).
For all of their efforts to insert Harry Callahan into the mix, though, ‘Sudden Impact’ feels like a compromise on all counts. It appears as though Locke and Eastwood wanted to make a more meaningful film, one that touched upon a topic that is difficult to address, but could only get the film made under the guise of a slick action flick – by adding superfluous and/or contrived sequences centering on the series’ iconic character.
In ‘Sudden Impact’ we have two slowly intertwining stories to follow: on the one hand, we get the story of a gang rape victim on a vigilante vengeance spree after many years in hiding. Her killings draw the attention of the San Francisco Police Department and Inspector Callahan finds himself on the case. On the other hand, Callahan’s past comes back to haunt him and many of his enemies decide to exact revenge on him at the same time. Everywhere he goes, even in the quietest locales, danger follows him.
On paper, this might have looked like a good idea: Harry is attacked on all fronts, by criminals he once arrested and by the mob. The purpose of this is to put him at risk and give the audience plenty of actions sequences. Unfortunately, it also dumbs down the proceedings and gives us nothing but lame novelty items such as Harry throwing a Molotov cocktail on some punks or hiding in a barrel in order to hit his aggressors by surprise (and waiting for them to empty their guns completely first, no less. Which, of course, they do ).
Most of the situations are meant to make Harry look like a bad @$$, but there’s no way that they would actually happen. Case-in-point, the coffee shop hold-up: Callahan and/or the burglars would have noticed the massive amount of sugar that the waitress was pouring in his coffee in order to alert him, he wouldn’t have been able to stroll back in through the rear door, wouldn’t have been able to pull out his gun without getting a reaction from the thugs and certainly wouldn’t have been able to take out the baddies one by one in such close quarters – they would have mobbed or overpowered him. Ridiculous.
And yet, despite the number of action sequences providing adrenaline, ‘Sudden Impact’ feels incredibly flat. What essentially emasculates the film is that we know who the killer is and we know her motive very early on. There is no mystery and no real sense of danger. All we’re doing, in truth, is watching her mow down her inevitable -and well-known- victims one-by-one and watching Harry try to catch up to her. But we know too much for any suspense to develop. All we get is a limp television-quality set-up and delivery.
Further inhibiting my enjoyment of the film is that, over a dozen years after the original film, Callahan still doesn’t understand that evidence can be thrown out when collected without a warrant; it’s as though he never learns. And yet, there he is, still policing. Either the script-writers were complete nincompoops and failed to achieve their aim, or they purposely decided to play Harry as a moron. Either way, I found it unpalatable to witness the stunted growth of this beloved character – one who seems sharp in so many other ways.
Also supporting my impression that the writers were slightly clueless about the whole “Dirty” Harry universe is that they inserted a character by the name of Captain Briggs into the film. Let me explain:
–Hal Hollbrook plays Lieutenant Neil Briggs in ‘Magnum Force’. He dies.
–Bradford Dillman plays Captain McKay in ‘The Enforcer’. He doesn’t die.
–Bradford Dillman plays Captain Briggs in ‘Sudden Impact’.
One can see some discrepancy at first glance alone. But let me put this in perspective: ALL of these characters are Harry Callahan’s superior. The writers seem to have morphed the characters of Lt. Briggs and Captain McKay for whatever reason, as though Lieutenant Briggs was now a Captain, many years after ‘Magnum Force’. Except that he died (and anyone who’s seen the film knows that he couldn’t possibly be Captain now ).
But, to blur things further, someone cast Dillman to play Captain Briggs – and he looks exactly the same as Captain McKay did in ‘The Enforcer’. A little older, but otherwise exactly the same (same haircut, moustache, sense of style). So it’s also a casting issue. But, let’s face it, it’s mostly a script issue: Bradford Dillman can play any damned part he wants. If the guy had been cast as Captain Jim Bob, it wouldn’t have mattered one bit. But, as Captain Briggs, it doesn’t make any sense.
Speaking of casting, there is one thing that I feel the need to highlight as a positive. I very much appreciate seeing Albert Powell in each of the first four “Dirty” Harry films, playing COMPLETELY DIFFERENT ROLES (firstly as the unnamed bank robber that Harry soliloquies, then as a pimp, then as Mustapha and then as Harry’s close friend). In fact, to me, it’s one of the coolest things in the series. It’s a connecting tissue, but it also suggests a fondness for the actor, seeing as Eastwood frequently collaborated with the same people – he had his regulars. And Powell is just too cool. I wuv him.
In ‘Sudden Impact’, Powell plays a close friend of Callahan’s. There had never even been a hint of Callahan having a friend before this film, so it felt a bit alien for him to have a bud. But, given that this is also the only “Dirty” Harry film in which he doesn’t have a partner, I suppose this was meant to provide him with some sort of replacement. Sadly, Powell’s character was merely a vehicle for false suspense and fart jokes (via a pet bulldog that he gives Harry). Yes. Fart jokes. This is one of the many elements that mires the film in the ’80s.
Exceptional writing is timeless. ‘Sudden Impact’ is anything but. I offer as evidence of the quality of the writing the fact that none of the writers appear to have had much of a writing career: the screenwriter only made four films, three of which (including this one, in my estimation) were clunkers, one of the dudes credited with the story is the genius behind the ‘Boggy Creek’ movies (he appears to have ended his career with ‘Sudden Impact’) and the last mostly continued his Hollywood days as a set decorator. Hmmm… that is telling, isn’t it?
Frankly, the writing is so shoddy in ‘Sudden Impact’ that the dialogue is staggering dull compared to the previous films (hence why I have not bothered to include quotes in this particular write-up. Really, what’s the point?). And these are action films. “Swell” is just about the only thing that Harry says that has any punch (and that’s only due to context and delivery, aside from his “Make My Day” moment and all of his one-liners are as stale as dog $#!t – a fitting analogy given that part of the humour revolves around his moronic dog (a side-kick that was thankfully jettisoned for ‘The Dead Pool’ ).
Even Lalo Schiffrin’s score was hardly as good as it could have been, and certainly didn’t match the ones he did for ‘Dirty Harry’ and ‘Magnum Force’. I’m not even sure that it’s as good as Jerry Fielding’s score for ‘The Enforcer’, in fact, partly due to some cheesy ’80s elements that were thrown in (likely to add some “coolness” to it. But we all know how being cool often dates things – as opposed to being classic, or timeless). In this one, he barely alludes to the themes that he originated and instead went with more generic compositions. I highly doubt that I’ll be buying the CD.
‘Sudden Impact’, thankfully, is not the last of the “Dirty” Harry films. If it had been, it would have been a disappointing swan song, and it would have been written off in the same way that the fourth Indiana Jones and Lethal Weapon films have been: as mistakes to otherwise excellent trilogies – mistakes we’d sooner forget. While the existence of ‘The Dead Pool’ would eventually keep ‘Sudden impact’ relevant, it remains a forgettable footnote in the series, one that can be endured with the promise of a more exemplary police thriller. On its own, however, taken out of the context of the series, this picture has all the impact and staying power of a wet noodle.