1980s, 3/4, Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry, Review, Thriller

Sudden Impact

#2 in my ranking of the Dirty Harry franchise.

#22 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.

The first Dirty Harry film where Clint Eastwood has an official directing credit (he did a bit of directing on the first one and is rumored to have shadow-directed the second when Tim Post didn’t work fast enough for his liking), Sudden Impact became a Dirty Harry film late in the screenplay’s pre-production life. It was originally just a story of a woman taking revenge on her rapists, and everything in the final film that comes from that original idea is what works best. Almost everything pasted on to feature Harry Callahan feels oddly out of place. However, Eastwood brought his consummate professionalism to the affair, especially regarding performance from his actors, and ended up creating the best Dirty Harry film since the original.

Harry Callahan is causing too much trouble in San Francisco. His methods of evidence collection keeps leading to criminals getting off, and he decides to confront a mob boss about his involvement in the death of a prostitute at his daughter’s wedding which leads to him having a heart attack. How do either of these things end up relating to the central plot of a woman taking her vengeance in Santa Cruz, California? Not at all, in fact. Harry Callahan is really, really pasted onto the edges of this story. The most one can say it does is anger his superiors enough to send him to Santa Cruz to investigate some background on a man from Santa Cruz who was found killed just outside of San Francisco, one bullet in his crotch and the other in his head. Sure.

Anyway, it’s never a mystery who’s doing the killings. We see Jennifer (Sondra Locke) clearly early, and she even admits it to her catatonic sister Beth (Lisa Britt), both victims of a rape on the Santa Cruz beach ten years earlier. What sets off the revenge was a coincidence (told about, but I think it would have been better had we seen it play out, I would imagine a victim of the process of adding in Callahan) where Jennifer simply came across one of her rapists one day in San Francisco. He didn’t recognize her, but she did him. She agreed to go with him to a remote place where she killed him. This sets off her quest for revenge, going back to Santa Cruz, her lowkey rampage being what brings Callahan.

One of the less successful parts of this film is the rapists themselves. There are four of them left (including one woman who seemed to be a leader of some sort who egged everything on), and we never get a great sense of who they are now or who they were ten years before. The most interesting of them is Tyrone (Wendell Wellman) who regrets the whole thing and wants to move on to protect his hardware store business. Ray (Audrie Neenan) just kind of growls at everyone. Alby (Michael Child) is the son of Chief Jannings (Pat Hingle) and was so overcome with his role in the affair that he drove his car into a wall in an attempted suicide that left him paralyzed and in a semi-vegetative state. The real leader of the whole thing was Mick (Paul Drake), who gets introduced near the halfway point in a scene in Las Vegas where he’s a bit aggressive with a prostitute, a scene that gets interrupted by a call from Ray that brings him back. Mick is simply not a great bad guy. Drake gives it his all, but all he has to work with is a guy who acts vaguely psychopathic. It’s perhaps likely that he was this thinly written in the original form of the script, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was at least partially a result of the culling of original material in favor of more Callahan screentime that led to this state of affairs.

The thematic focus of the whole series is the institutional failures regarding justice, and it’s nice that this finds a way to fit in with that. Moving to a small town setting, it allows for the kind of street-level crimes that Callahan looks into combined with corruption of the highest levels of government present. The previous films were more about institutional cowardice while this is more about institutional complicity. It’s a nice variation on what’s come before, and it gives Pat Hingle a good scene to explain his failings.

Callahan ends up behind the ball a fair bit in this small mystery that we know the solution to from the beginning, and he’s really the least interesting part of the whole thing. When he comes in at the ending to wipe away the criminality in an action-packed finale, it feels perfunctory rather than like the culmination of a series of events. All of the character growth and emotional resonance belongs to Jennifer, and in one of Sondra Locke’s last film performances she gives Jennifer a strong acting base on which the film stands. She may have been too old for the role (a quick flashback to when she’s supposed to be in college really makes it obvious the age difference between actress and part), but she does everything she can to help the film.

Sudden Impact is barely a Dirty Harry movie, but it’s still a pretty good movie. The central elements around a woman finding delayed vengeance for a crime along with the failings of the system end up making it feel more like a worthy thematic sequel rather than a literal one, but Eastwood brings his practiced workmanlike hand to the production to help string it all together. It could have used another rewrite to more intricately integrate the Callahan elements into the central story, but as it stands, it works well enough.

Rating: 3/4

6 thoughts on “Sudden Impact”

  1. First, let me start off with stating I have no problem with vigilante justice directed against rapists. That said…I kinda hate this movie. It’s like ‘I Spit on your Grave’ with a less likable cast mashed together with Clint Eastwood playing an off-brand Dirty Harry.

    They should have left this as a non-Dirty Harry movie, because this flick really does a disservice to his character. The Dirty Harry of The Enforcer would not have let Sandra Locke walk. Or maybe that’s the power of pussy, getting laid apparently took all his testosterone away. Harry even loses his S&W Model 29, his iconic pistol, by getting his ass kicked by California second-tier thugs, for crying out loud. And does he go looking for it? No.

    Bad writing. The Mafia stuff in particular doesn’t fit in.

    Though…most of the bad writing is with the Harry stuff. There is an off brand exploitation movie in here, with some moral ambiguity that Jennifer mostly doesn’t seem clued into until she’s hit over the head with it. And honestly…moral ambiguity doesn’t work well in a vigilante revenge movie. It really doesn’t. It undercuts the vengeance, which is probably intentional. This movie, like all the Dirty Harry movies after the first one (which was nearly perfect), wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants killing but it wants you to deplore the killer. It’s morally all over the place.

    And then there’s Sandra herself. playing someone way younger than she really is and not really playing young believably. She’s incredibly unlikeable in this role and she’s sometimes a two drink minimum kinda girl anyway. I didn’t feel she and Harry had good chemistry, and him banging her really felt out of character to me. (yes, I know Clint and Sandra were still dating IRL, though not for much longer)

    This movie is also famous to gun guys by featuring the .44 Automag, which was a neat looking near-novelty gun favored by one of my favorite literary heroes, Mack Bolan. In real life, the gun was unreliable and needed custom ammo. The company went out of business due to bad engineering and worse business sense by the creator, though it’s being revived if you want to drop 4 grand on a pistol (and, again, you’ll want to be a handloader). But gun porn aside, barely, narratively the gun is almost a product placement. It has no reason except to allow Clint to lose his gun and to use another one even ‘better’ to kill bad guys. Now I love my gun porn but a cop losing his service pistol and not just any pistol but his ICONIC character weapon is wrong on a narrative, and on a practical storytelling level.

    So, no, don’t like this one.

    In the end, I’m just glad Jennifer Lawrence was able to blaze a trail to allow a female action hero like this movie Jennifer to exist…..seven years before she was born.


    1. Jennifer Lawrence? You mean the first man to walk on the moon?

      I suppose the character breaks in The Dead Pool bothered me a lot more than the breaks for Harry here, and that’s probably because he’s simply not the focus. He wandered into someone else’s movie, gets the final moment that doesn’t really belong to him, and makes some minor enemies along the way.

      I’m honestly just kind of impressed that the thematic focus retained some semblance of purchase by the fourth film. That’s truly some kind of impressive for a franchise as cobbled together as this one.


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