Synopsis: Fame isn’t detective Harry Callahan’s style. He dislikes being grouped with a rock star, a film critic and a TV host, all slain celebrities in a macabre betting pool called the Dead Pool. Another name just got added and it’s his.
Clint Eastwood returns for his fifth Callahan caper and this time his new partner is a Karate whiz, mafia goons have sworn to snuff him. And in the most amazing San Francisco chase since Bullitt, Harry puts the pedal to the metal to outrun a bomb carrying, Radio controlled toy car.
It’s also a great showcase for future stars Jim Carrey, playing an ill-fated rock musician, and Liam Neeson as a power-tripping Director. For hard-hitting action, dive into this cool pool!
The Dead Pool 8.0
Inspector Harry Callahan: “You want to play the game, you’d better know the rules, love.”
‘The Dead Pool’ is the only “Dirty” Harry film that I saw on the big screen. It was great timing, though: when it came out, I had just recently gotten myself up to speed on the first four films in the series and had shown then to a few friends along the way. I was decidedly a fan by then.
So when this one came out, I was pretty eager to see it. I was so keen on it, in fact, that I coaxed my cinema-averse father to see it by treating him. It turned out to be a good gamble because he really enjoyed it and I was absolutely thrilled by this latest (final, it turns out) instalment in the series.
I’ll always vividly remember the eerie vibe that permeated the picture, what with the horror film sets and the grisly killings by a faceless killer, the exciting -if gimmicky- car chase through San Francisco, as well as a few extremely memorable taglines that shot out of Clint Eastwood’s lips. It’s all etched in my memory and, to me, it was in a class apart.
‘The Dead Pool’ is also notable for introducing me to Patricia Clarkson, the seemingly ageless actress (she would have only been 29 at the time, but played a much more mature character) with the intelligent eyes and simmering, smouldering allure. And that voice, characterized by some as a “Whiskey voice”… I don’t know why, but it gets me every time. I’ve had a small crush on her since first seeing ‘The Dead Pool’ so, when I started to realize that she was slowly making good in Hollywood, playing lots of small -but substantial- parts, I was quite pleased. In my estimation, one can never get too much of Patricia Clarkson; she’s way under-rated.
She makes of her character a perfect match for Harry Callahan. While Eastwood had been sleeping at the wheel in the previous sequel, ‘Sudden Impact’, he was in top form in ‘The Dead Pool’ growling his way through the part like a man on a mission. I suspect that he knew this would be the last one and that he wanted to leave the series with the proverbial bang. The man was 58 at the time, and he managed to make a near-senior citizen menacing in a wholly believable way: this “Dirty” Harry is not the smooth man that we discovered way back 1971 – he’s now grizzled, weathered and likely more direct in his approach than ever.
But, with Clint Eastwood, it works. I was trying to imagine anyone but Eastwood pulling off a line like “Fuck with me, buddy, I’ll kick your ass so hard you’ll have to unbutton your collar to shit.” at such an advanced age without sounding forced and out of synch, and I can’t. Even our toughest actions heroes, such Schwarzenegger and Stallone would have made it sound risible – whereas, when uttered by Harry Callahan, there is absolutely no doubt that the man is playing for keeps, that he isn’t joking or winking at his audience. This is one old coot not to be messed with.
In ‘The Dead Pool’, he’s partnered up with Evan C Kim, who provides just the right balance to the cynical, hardened Callahan. As a younger, somewhat street-wise character, he is pop culture-savvy and has a naïve, starry-eyed quality about him. He’s funny, relaxed and personable, and he’s one of my favourite side-kicks of the whole series. I’d say that, if it wasn’t for just how ballsy Tyne Daly is in ‘The Enforcer’, he’d be tops in my book – he’s simply that congenial. Plus he’s got martial arts chops (as evidenced in ‘The Kentucky Fried Movie’)! Who could ask for anything more?
Not a series that shies away from social commentary, this particular film discusses media image: Kim’s character has been assigned to Callahan to improve relations with the Asian community, given the Inspector’s negative reputation of late. What the film demonstrates is that appearances can be deceiving: Kim’s character was once in teen gangs in the Asian district of San Fran and he is still recognized as a trouble-maker by some shop owners. So, while his bosses think that he can help soften Callahan’s image, he’s actually contributing damage to it by association. How ironic.
Gus Wheeler (drenched in gasoline and with flare): “You all stay back! Everyone! It’s gonna go up. Where’s the news crew? You better get them here! I mean it, now!”
Harry Callahan: “Oh you can set yourself into a bonfire and we’ll break out the marshmallows and the weenies but you ain’t gonna be on News at Eleven.”
I also loved the picture’s commentary on media responsibility, journalistic integrity and censorship. It’s extremely topical even today, but they did it at a time when things really started to get out of hand. Clarkson plays Samantha Walker, an eager, up-and-coming TV reporter who crosses the line and realizes that there should be limits to the lengths at which she and her peers can go to get their scoops – that human dignity shouldn’t be a victim of ambition and that an irresponsible media can actually fuel societal ills. What I like is that this is addressed without preaching too much.
Of course, these are elements that connect with me more now. But when I first saw ‘The Dead Pool’, the key impression I was left with was that it had an eerie quality to it. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the film was book-ended by night-time sequences, but what contributed to it the most is that our baddie is a faceless assailant who stalks and kills his victims, frequently in gruesome ways. In fact, one of my primary mental images, when I think of this film, is of the psycho with the long, slightly-curved knife. This is all compounded by the setting, which is a horror film production.
Another thing that immediately comes to mind when I think of the movie is that sequence with the remote-controlled car. Initially, it was used by our serial killer to off one of his victims, sneaking its way under his parked car. That particular moment is only barely suspenseful, as we all know what to expect well before it happens. However, when the killer decides to try the same thing a second time, we are treated to what may be one of the most memorable car chases in Hollywood history – and at the very least, of the ’80s. I spent days talking to my friends about that awesome chase when I first saw it, and it still excites me every time I see it.
Yet another element that brings a smile to my face in ‘The Dead Pool’ is its cameos. I didn’t know it then, but one of our leads, Liam Neeson, would later become one of the world’s most well-recognized actors. Here Neeson plays an arrogant prick, but he plays it up perfectly; he’s quite good. Meanwhile, Jim Carrey gets one of his first roles in Johnny Squares, a junkie rocker whose death sets-up the whole picture. His lip-synched performance to the tune of Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle’ remains a vivid memory. And, speaking of G N’R, if one pays attention close enough, Slash, Duff and Izzy can be discerned on movie set, firing a harpoon from the deck of a ship. But don’t look away to get your snacks or you’ll miss it!
What can I say? I get a real kick out of ‘The Dead Pool’ every time that I watch it. For me, it hits all the right notes all the way through until right before the end, at which point it deflates only mildly (albeit enough to drop my rating from 8.25 to 8.0). The story is riveting and topical, the action is top-notch, its dialogue is the sharpest since the original, the characters are thoroughly enjoyable and the pacing is just right. In my opinion, it’s one of the best of series and by far one of the most enduring action films of the ’80s.