Saturday, May 30, 2015

Magnum Force (1973) review


Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), Hal Holbrook (Lieutenant Briggs), Felton Perry (Early Smith), Mitchell Ryan (McCoy), David Soul (Davis), Tim Matheson (Sweet), Robert Urich (Grimes), Christine White (Carol McCoy), Adele Yoshioka (Sunny)

Directed by Ted Post

"You expect me to believe that a traffic cop is killing off all the top criminals in the city?!"

The Short Version: Callahan returns to the screen for more crime-crushing excessive force, only this time he's up against a group of vigilante boys in blue whose 'judge, jury, and executioner' style make Harry look like a crossing guard in comparison. With a plot very similar to Italy's EXECUTION SQUAD (1972), Harry's second go round might just well be the likable, hot-headed Tough Cop's magnum opus.

A number of criminals who were able to use the legal system to their advantage are being covertly snuffed out by vigilante cops. As the Captain puts it, "Somebody's trying to put the courts out of business!" Harry Callahan, having been reassigned to stakeout duty, is put back on homicide to find out the identities of this secret execution squad.

Two years after putting a big hole in the Scorpio, Harry Callahan returns in this even bigger sequel that deals its justice as controversially as it did the first time around. DIRTY HARRY (1971) espoused an emasculated social structure in crime-ridden San Francisco. It was Callahan's tactics vs. a flawed judicial system; and quicker than you could say "Do you feel lucky?", critics began shouting the 'F' word (not that 'F' word) every few sentences. The sequel continues down that road, but pushes the boundaries by including a renegade band of motorcycle cops that represent the Dirty One's dark side. As has already been established, Callahan doesn't bother with arrests of dangerous criminals, he meets them on their own terms and disposes of them accordingly. 

The four man vigilante force are far more ruthless. Whether it's mobsters or pimps, they stalk their prey and pounce when they don't expect it, using their badge to get close to their targets and execute them (Interestingly, when they  play the game Harry's way during the Palancio stakeout, one of them gets killed). Harry, on the other hand, reacts to an opposing action. He engages them Old West style; and like Randolph Scott, Robert Ryan and John Wayne, he always gets the man on the Wanted poster. However, this particular world isn't big enough for more than one nonconformist. Eventually there will be a showdown between the maverick sheriff with the .44 magnum and the renegade posse. In the end somebody is definitely feeling lucky. 

For Callahan, there's no blurred line as to who is good or evil ("so long as the right people get shot"). This still didn't (and still doesn't) stop critics from throwing the word 'fascist' around in describing this cop whom they seemed more fearful of than the damn criminals. Moreover, those same critics have added an allure to the series that has enhanced the mystique behind it. For this sequel, the script (by John Milius and Michael Cimino) gives them their bonafide blackshirts; something more pronounced to fear that wears a badge and carries a gun.

Merriam-Webster defines fascism as "a way of organizing a society in which a government ruled by a dictator controls the lives of the people and in which people are not allowed to disagree with the government." Another definition reads, "A totalitarian philosophy of government that glorifies the state and nation and assigns to the state control over every aspect of national life." 

In the film, Harry is certainly not a dictator. The law is. The law decides who lives and who dies. Nor does Harry glorify the state; or in this case, the system. He hates the system--the liberal legal system that has made a mess of things and Harry's the janitor who must clean it up; which makes sense considering his name derives from always getting the dirty jobs. Well, somebody's got to do it. Ironically, he sometimes makes a mess of his own, but delivers efficient results in the end. In MAGNUM FORCE, there's some new enforcers in town, and they ride dark horses. If ever a fascistic label could be applied, it's on them.

The series would evolve further with the next entry, THE ENFORCER (1976), only critical notices would remain largely the same.

MAGNUM FORCE expands on the themes of DIRTY HARRY, and not exclusive to the political realm. One notable difference is Harry appears a lot less angry than the first movie where he seemed like he had a tack stuck in his foot or something. Even with the constant belittlement from Lt. Briggs (Hal Holbrook), Harry keeps his cool. These scenes with the Lieutenant are some of the best bits in the film.

Harry's more calculating this time around. An example of this is a scene where he's on the shooting range with Davis (David Soul). Harry's on to the boys, and when he "accidentally" shoots a target marker in the form of a policeman ("that last one was a good guy!"), he's giving a subtle hint.

Ted Post (director of HANG'EM HIGH, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK) kicks things off in much the same fashion as Siegel's original before piling on the action sequences and police procedural mystery. Just like in the first movie, Harry's lunch is interrupted; and like the first movie, he's not far from trouble. Instead of bank robbers it's hijackers aboard a plane. The outcome is the same, but with a touch of humor. What little humor found in DIRTY HARRY was on the uncomfortable side, but here, Harry's calm demeanor allows some genuine, if terse amusement to shine through.

Additionally, the script gives Harry some female entanglements this go round. One is the ex-wife of a cop friend of his (played by Mitchell Ryan); and another is an Asian lady living in his building, who, immediately after seeing him going up to his room, begins a brief convo before casually asking, "What does a girl have to do to go to bed with you?" Reportedly, these scenes were inserted to satisfy Eastwood's female fans, yet nothing is done with either relationship. Each woman gets a few scenes and then are dropped. 

The biggest missed opportunity is the angle involving Sunny, played by Japanese actress Adele Yoshioka. Since she provides the sole bit of romance for loner Callahan, the lawlessness of the bike-riding cops might of gotten a bit more mileage had she been put in their cross hairs. Instead, their totalitarian tendencies shine when they attempt to coerce Harry into their fold ("You're either for us or against us"). He refuses and has a noisy surprise waiting for him in his mailbox. Granted, Sunny is inadvertently put in harms way during this sequence, only Harry shoves her off-camera to her apartment, never to be seen onscreen again. Her character is welcome, if inconsequential, adding little more than to be the most likely reason Harry is less tense.

As fantastic a movie as MAGNUM FORCE is, there's no denying similarities to a 1972 Italian movie titled EXECUTION SQUAD (LA POLIZIA RINGRAZIA). In that film, a police inspector seeks those responsible for the deaths of criminals who have slipped through the legal system. His trail leads him to a secret vigilante squad of former cops. Directed by Stefano Vanzina, the Italian picture is far more political and complex in its storytelling; and a darker, more insidious affair. MAGNUM is more simplistic in its approach. 

Harry's first case opened up a lot of discussion on excessive force and dealing with a fractured legal system. Callahan's return to homicide approaches similar dossiers, but opts for the flipside of the coin that was tossed by critics in 1971; adding not only moral corruption, but questioning the brand of justice carried out by those who bypass the system, redefining vigilantism in a way that's dirtier than Harry could ever be. 

This review is representative of the Warner Brothers box set. Extras and Specs: anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen; A Moral Right: The Politics of Dirty Harry featurette; The Hero Cop: Yesterday and Today (vintage featurette); Dirty Harry Trailer Gallery; commentary by John Milius.

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