Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Dirty Harry Series

I've recently watched the Dirty Harry series over again with an eye to how it changes between 1971 and 1988. Over that period of time, Not only does Hollywood change, but American sensibilities change, and our tastes in heroes (and anti-heroes) change.

At the time the original Dirty Harry came out in 1971, America was hip-deep in Vietnam, and the socio-political changes that were evolving us into a society ready for "post-modern pulp" type themes was well under way. Civil rights strife, drugs, violent crime, political unrest, and a nation that has recently had it's post WW2 innocent, noble glow roughly stripped away; this mix opened the door wide for a crime-fighting anti-hero cop, carrying a weapon no real-world cop could possibly get away with, doing things that no real-world cop could possibly do and keep his job. Although it is 14 years before Rambo First Blood Part II, Dirty Harry is to winning the war on crime that we knew we could never win the same way Rambo "wins" the war we couldn't win 10 years after the fact.

And like Rambo, Harry Callahan is a good person who is forced to bend, and even crack - but not break - the rules in order to get the job done. Callahan is given the offer in Magnum Force to join up with the very post-Vietnam-esque "kill squad" of young rookie cops who, having no doubt all come out of Vietnam (at least one of them was an Airborne Ranger), and have decided that the "war against crime" needs to be fought in the same unorthodox, unconventional, and utterly ruthless manner that they fought overseas ("We're the first generation that's learned how to fight." one of them tells Callahan). But Callahan, although a SFPD pariah in his own right, still has defined lines for himself that he won't cross, and true vigilante justice is one of them.

The Enforcer is, sadly, where the series begins to tip over. Pairing Callahan with a female partner is just somewhat groan-worthy, since while she is obviously a competent police officer, the sort of shit that Callahan swims in becomes inevitably too much for her (as it is every other partner he ever has). My problem with the pairing is that, along with the hippie / counter-culture revolutionary dorks Callahan goes up against, the movie isn't "Dirty Harry, rogue crimefighter" but "Dirty Harry, stuffy misogynist hippie-hater".

Then we have Sudden Impact. I actually think this is a pretty good Dirty Harry movie on some levels, and a terrible movie on others. I actually very much like it's slower pace after the 'splosions and such in The Enforcer; Sudden Impact is a "smaller" story and gets handled as such. I also like that the main character isn't really Callahan, but actually Sandra Locke's character, with Callahan as more of an observer / PoV character. On the other hand, by this point in the series, Dirty Harry is becoming almost a caricature of himself; the idea that he needs to have a "punchline" every movie that gets used once in the beginning and once at the end is now so engraved that it's actually becoming annoying. Also, various 80's-isms are beginning to worm their way into the movie, meaning what used to be a pretty bleak, 70's feeling character has become, to one degree or another, an almost Terminator-esque figure who can get the living crap utterly kicked out of him, and yet be right back on his feet and busting ass mere minutes later.

"Go ahead, make my day..."

And finally, we have The Dead Pool. I'm sorry, but this movie is pretty much crap. Not awful, unwatchable crap, but by this point, the series has really just become another "rogue cop takes on bad guys the rest of the force can't handle", no different than Lethal Weapon or Die Hard or any other 80's cop movie. The subtext of the ouroboros formed by real world violence -- glorification in the media -- fascination in fiction -- stimulus for real world violence is just wearying by 1988. And while using Welcome to the Jungle is always appreciated, Jim Carrey flailing around lip-syncing to it just kinda makes me want to cry. This movie is a picture-perfect specimen of what happened to violent films in the twenty years-ish that the series has been around; "crime dramas" or "violent thrillers" have become "action movies", with all the baggage that entails.

At the end of the day, I love the Dirty Harry movies. I think they are very much a cinematic overview of the path post-modern pulp fiction has taken over the years, warts and all. Although there are ups and downs and pros and cons in every film, any fan of the post-modern pulp genre should do themselves a favor and make sure they've seen all these films, and seen them together recently enough that the others can be kept in mind (Netflix users; all but The Enforcer are available via Netflix Instant).


Hank Brown said...

This is a subject very worthy of analysis. Though I agree that the "voice" of the narratives devolved as the eras changed (and sequels almost always get progressively worse as a series goes on--Rambo being a good example), I believe there's another reason why the later installments don't live up to the first 2: The Dirty Harry and Magnum Force screenplays were ghost-written by John Milius.

Reading this reminded me of one of my favorite guilty pleasures from the '80s. In many ways it was a better knockoff of D.H. than Sudden Impact or the Dead Pool: Cobra (that's right--Sly Stallone).

The same actor who played Callahan's partner in the first D.H. flick also played Cobretti's sidekick. The actor who played the villain in D.H. played the trifling chickensh*t cop in Cobra.

OK, the bad guy cult in Cobra had some seriously unestablished motivations, and the climactic fight scene took place in the obligatory flaming pipe factory...but that '50 Merc was wicked; there was some great stunt-driving; and Cobretti was just slopping over with Dirty Harry attitude.

Jack Badelaire said...

Dude, I love Cobra. And I pretty much agree with everything you just stated. The fact that the Jati-matic SMG makes an appearance just makes it even better.

Cobra might be some serious Gouda, but it's Smoky Gouda, with some real substance and bite to it.