Right up to the moment the titular hero turned his maniacal nemesis into the equivalent of a human polo mint with a slug from his 44. Magnum, Dirty Harry was a film that confidently walked the wobbly tightrope between treating its lead as a necessary evil in order to combat the rising brutality in street crime in San Francisco. Taken on it’s own merits, Don Siegel’s majestic thriller is a cautionary debate about whether excessive police force in the face of such obvious depravity is a necessary evil that ended by Detective Harry Callahan enigmatically hurling his badge into a lake, seemingly wanting out of a job that will become ever more entangled in red tape and moral complexity. It’s a great ending for a great film, but where do you go from here? The smart answer would be nowhere, but Hollywood isn’t exactly known for it’s sensible decisions when money is involved, so two years later Harry returned, dirtier than ever – but even with a script that had John Milius and Michael Cimino finger prints on it, could a sequel to Dirty Harry possibly keep up the same balancing act?
Mystery assailants are executing criminals who have flaunted the law with extreme prejudice and the powers that be want it stopped – because if someone out there is taking the law into their own hands, where does it end? This doesn’t particularly worry Inpector Harry Callahan much as he’s paying penance for past indiscretions by slogging away in the stakeout squad while he awaits his return to homicide. As he does his job alongside his understandably nervous partner, Early Smith, he finds he can’t help himself sticking his nose into the investigation much to the ire of preachy straight arrow Lt. Briggs whose acerbic comments are batted by in Harry’s usual, laconic style.
The the bodycount grows to accommodate pimps, legbreakers and kingpins, this mobile death squad starts to get ever more brash until one of San Francisco’s officers gets caught in the crossfire which is the straw that finally gets Harry back in homicide. However, finding himself on peripheral assignments thanks to the petty Briggs, Callahan elects to do some off the books police work and not only tmdors figure the murderers to be cops, but he strongly suspects a team of rookie traffic officers (who unsurprisingly idolise him) to be the culprits.
Can Harry manipulate his orders enough to smoke these guys into revealing themselves and even if he can, it’s going to be four on one – can even the slugs nestled in his infamous hand canon even the odds enough for true justice to prevail?
Straight from the word go, it’s tough to see how Magnum Force intends to tread the same blurry line as its predecessor when the opening credits literally feature the camera pouring over the image of a hand clutching Harry’s iconic firearm with porn-like intensity while Lalo Schiffrin’s score turns things up to super funky and if I’m being honest, the loss of Don Siegel’s steady hand is keenly felt.
Trying to side step the question whether Harry is a vigilante thug by giving him actual vigilante cops to face could have posed some interesting questions to both the audience and our hero, but instead all it does in muddy the waters and gives Callahan some easy justification when explaining why exactly he goes about things the way he does. Claiming he never shot a man who never shot at him first may be technically true and his admission that he believes the law admittedly stinks, but he follows it because it’s the only one we have doesn’t really explain why he’s constantly running off and fucking around in other people’s cases – but it does give him a convenient moral high ground when faced with the vigilantes themselves that oddly declines to hold up a mirror to our overzealous hero.
In fact, the movie chooses to hold our Harry up as an uncrackable rock of virtue, his scowl unbreaking in a world of perverts and psychos while others such as Charlie, a buddy on the force, are cracking under the strain of the job and are dealing with his frustrations by having a full blown mid-life crisis mixed with bouts of playing russian roulette in front of his family. Harry himself is also seeming somewhat less of the bitter loner this time round who suspiciously sure seems to get laid a lot for a guy who works homicide hours in the early 70’s.
That all being said, while director Ted Post (who previously directed Eastwood in Rawhide and Hang Em High) may not have the vision of Siegel, but he can sure stage an above average action thriller and to enjoy Magnum Force’s flawed pleasures it’s probably best to let some of the more uncomfortable aspects of 70’s cop movies pass you by. The sadly predictable treatment of Harry’s black partner aside (played by Johnson from Robobcop!) and not to mention a misjudged homophobic slur dropped into a backhanded comment, Magnum Force proves to be a little too forceful at times with a frankly unnecessary scene of a pimp murdering one of his girls by pouring drain cleaner down her throat.
However, when we get down to basic cops and robbers, Dirty Harry’s second outing isn’t half bad at all and features a cast that features the inhumanly dependable Hal Holbrook and a pre-fame David Soul as one of the fresh faced murderers with a badge (blimey, what’s got into Hutch?).
Elevating the whole enterprise, of course, is good old Clint, who brings equal parts charisma and glower power to make Callahan a suprisingly likeable grumpy despite his anti-hero persona and he comes fully loaded with withering comments and wry asides which includes the legendary “A man’s got to know his limitations” delivered with all the typical dryness of a sun bleached river bed.
The final act switch that sees Harry transmogrify from grizzled detective to an out and out action hero who foils a random plane hijacking in the first 15 minutes, jumps a motorbike between the decks of rusted ships and crushes an opponent’s windpipe with his bare hands is a little weird and to be honest it’s also a bit tough to believe the central concept that traffic cops could blow people away in broad daylight while wearing their actual uniforms and not get spotted by anyone. But despite its fumbling of the original’s themes, Magnum Force is still a diverting watch even though it suffers the odd dishonorable discharge…