Friday, June 15, 2012

Magnum Force


“A man’s got to know his limitations.”

The first of four sequels to Don Siegel’s epochal ‘Dirty Harry’, and the only one of them that even begins to engage with that film’s considerations of vigilantism vs due process and the moral erosion of the already thin dividing line between cop and killer, ‘Magnum Force’ is an often powerful and occasionally flawed movie. It’s also notable for being written by directors-in-waiting John Milius and Michael Cimino, both of whom would turn in infinitely more iconoclastic work than its actual director, Ted Post.

The opening credits play out over the stark image, against a red background, of Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood)’s trademark Magnum .45 clutched in a hefty fist. A slow zoom in ensures that, by the time the thumb has moved to the trigger and cocked it, the gun is occupying the whole of the screen. The fist angles it in the audience’s direction. The gun fires. It’s almost the antithesis of 007 shooting the audience in the intros to the Bond movies. There, Bond is being tracked through a gun barrel but gets his shot in first. Here, Callahan just turns his gun on the audience and blasts.

Utterly unsubtle, but a perfect definition of what the film is about. And perhaps the only instance in cinema of a prop, not a person, breaking the fourth wall. This is what you came for, isn’t it? the gun asks (can a weapon sneer?). This is why you bought your ticket and that large tub of popcorn and sat your ass down in this theatre. And, with the benefit of hindsight: This is why you stumped for this movie on DVD. Isn’t it punk? This is why you watch anything with Clint in. Because deep down the right-winger in you wants to see the bad guys, the pimps and the pushers and the scum of the earth, get blown away without all the time-consuming business of bureaucracy intruding.

The gun tips you the wink. It reminds you of Callahan’s mano-a-mano battle with the Scorpio killer in the original movie – a grudge match that was settled without lawyers, judges or the ministrations of twelve men good and true.

‘Magnum Force’ then spends two hours subverting these expectations. Glossing over the fact that Callahan tossed away his badge at the end of ‘Dirty Harry’, we have him busted down to stakeout duty by his irascible superior Lieutenant Briggs (Hal Holbrook) and shoo’d away from a homicide scene. Callahan, bored with sitting in a car when he could be doing some real detective work, decides to involve himself in the case anyway. This doesn’t go over too well with his new partner “Early” Smith (Felton Perry), and with good reason. Callahan goes through partners they way Oliver Reed went through pubs. Put it this way: if it’s your first day with the San Francisco PD and the roster lists you for duty with Callahan, H … don’t bank on collecting your pension.


While Callahan probes the execution-style deaths of several major league villains who had hitherto flaunted their above-the-law status, he comes into contact with a group of motorcycle cops led by Aryan poster boy John Davis (David Soul). Bested by Davis in a shooting competition, Callahan muses on his limitations. But when the evidence points to them as a ton-up judge-jury-and-executioner squad, even Callahan’s scepticism about the system is sorely tested. Yup, this is a Dirty Harry movie in which our (anti)hero is given to considerations of morality, due process and human rights.

It’s perhaps disingenuous to delineate the aforementioned dividing line in terms of Harry Callahan only blows people away while they’re in the act, not because of what they may or may not have done in the past, but nonetheless it’s a very shaky exercise in semantics that differentiates him from Davis and co. 

The script, when it gets in gear, exploits this grey area brilliantly, continually challenging us as to why we find Callahan’s methods cathartic and Davis’s reprehensible. Are we really so shallow that we’ll accept rough justice and terminal judgement as long as it’s meted out by someone who looks cool, gets the girls and grunts pithy one-liners with the devil-may-care indifference of a gunslinger spitting out a stream of tobacco juice?


You know what? I rather think we are. ‘Magnum Force’ has two main problems. Number one: Ted Post’s direction is uninspired and he doesn’t seem able to rein his actors in – which is no problem as far as Eastwood, American cinema’s unchallenged king of minimalism, is concerned but fuck me if the usually excellent Holbrook doesn’t chew the scenery as if he’s just doused it in Tabasco sauce and had it brought to him with a side order of fries and a tub of coleslaw.

Number two: the script requires Callahan to float around for the first hour, marking time while the biker boys notch up enough hits to establish themselves as antagonists, whilst still reminding everyone that he’s the main character and a badass mo’ fo’ to boot. This results in numerous go-nowhere scenes such as an airport hijacking (curtailed in a thoroughly arbitrary manner), a convenience store stick-up and several flat scenes where various women throw themselves at him.

The second half, however, ramps up the drama and the action. A dockyard shoot-out is poundingly staged and edited, and the finale, in which an unarmed Callahan is caught up in a tense game of cat ‘n’ mouse through the rusting hulk of a decommissioned aircraft carrier, raises the bar on the grain-store chase scene that concluded ‘Dirty Harry’.

After this, only ‘The Enforcer’ with its Alcatraz-set finale would deliver any hint of frisson. ‘Magnum Force’ rides out the definitive pop-culture phenomenon of ‘Dirty Harry’ with a modicum of style and brings a few ideas of its own to the squad room. And, hey, it’s certainly the best film Ted Post ever made.


Matthew Kitsell said...

Hi Neil,

A lovely review of one of my all-time favourites. For me, though Magnum Force can't match Dirty Harry for tightness and tension, and despite the fact that it runs a little too long, it ramps up on the action set pieces to spectacular effect and I love the whole scuzzy look of it.

Many thanks,


Michael Grover said...

Great review, as always. I've often wondered if Magnum Force was the filmmakers' response to certain critics' assertions that the first film was fascist. An organized police death squad eliminating undesirables and anyone else who happens to be around at the time makes Harry look positively restrained. Although not nearly on the level of the original, I love this film, and a high point for me is Lalo Schifrin's irresistibly funky main theme.

In your review of Diamonds Are Forever, you remarked on the confusion of having Charles Gray play Blofeld when he'd already had a different role in an earlier Bond film. What about Albert Popwell, who was the "punk" on the receiving end of Harry's iconic speech in the first film, plays a murderous pimp in this one, a revolutionary in The Enforcer and Harry's pal in Sudden Impact? Now that's confusing!

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. Good call on Albert Popwell reappearances, Michael - I can get my head round 'Magnum Force' and 'The Enforcer' (I always took the repeated casting, in villainous roles, as something of an in-joke), but when he turns up on the side of the angels - or at least on the side of Harry Callahan - in 'Sudden Impact', that's the big WTF moment for me!