#5 in my ranking of the Dirty Harry franchise.
Where Sudden Impact felt like someone inelegantly added Harry Callahan to an unrelated script, The Dead Pool feels like some taking the most generic cop script in existence and changing the generic cop’s name to Harry Callahan while still managing to get Clint Eastwood to reprise the role for the last time. That’s not to say it’s bad. That’s also not to imply it’s good, either. It’s an incredibly middle of the road yarn that would have been completely forgotten if it weren’t for its place as the last of the Dirty Harry films.
Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) has done good on the job for once, providing evidence that put a famous San Francisco mobster behind jail all the way through the trial and sentencing. This has brought him celebrity and good notices with the press, something the department is happy to try and take advantage of. Meanwhile, Peter Swan (Liam Neeson) is making a movie with bad boy rock star Johnny Squares (Jim Carey), a B-grade slasher flick with satanic overtone, when Squares ends up dead, seemingly of an overdose. Through the efforts of a local reporter, Samantha Walker (Patricia Clarkson) discovers that the cast and crew were running a dead pool, supposedly focused on older celebrities, but which contains both the names of Squares and Callahan himself.
Matched with a new partner, Al Quan (Evan C. Kim), Callahan is, of course, on the case.
Now, the previous four Dirty Harry films had a pretty specific thematic focus: the inability to find justice in a decaying system of justice. This has nothing to do with it, which tells me that the screenwriter, Steve Sharon, and director, Buddy Van Horn, didn’t really understand what they were getting into. Could there be a Dirty Harry film that didn’t involve that sort of relatively specific thematic idea? Probably, but it seems so intimately tied to the character and how he functions that you might as well put him in a romantic comedy if you aren’t going to deal with the idea. I’m sure Harry Callahan had some errant week with a girl that was all wrong for him at some point.
Anyway, the central mystery reminds me of what happened in Tightrope. The film is simply unconcerned with the identity of the killer. It ends up being a background killer, and it’s obvious that we will have no real clues to the killer’s identity pretty early when the main suspect (Swan) gets completely exonerated. Are there other suspects to look into? Maybe, but Harry Callahan never spends any time looking into them, or even going through their names. No, most of his time is spent with Samantha, raising another potentially interesting question: what is the role of the media in trying to help fight crime? It’s not really a question for Harry since he’s not in the media, but I suppose it’s an interesting question nonetheless.
The movie doesn’t really do much with it, though, because as soon as it’s raised, we get a lot of business about the real killer working his way through the dead pool. There’s a killing in Chinatown, a couple of attempted hits on Callahan that are actually stemming from the mobster in jail, and then some extended scenes of the killer…um…this is real…using remote controlled miniature cars with enough explosives to blow up cars. He kills one victim that we’ve never seen before the scene he dies in, and then there’s an extended chase with Callahan himself that gets outright silly with the RC car getting perfect ramp jumps (that laugh HAS to be intentional).
The finale ends up bringing Callahan, Samantha, and the killer into the same room with a focus on a man with no personality of his own (that’s the gimmick). Like most of the rest of the policework in the film, it’s perfectly serviceable. It doesn’t feel distinctly like the work of Harry Callahan, but it works.
And then there’s a final moment that feels so completely out of character for Callahan that I have to mention it. I have to mention it because Magnum Force made a big deal about the line that Callahan drew between his own zealous policework and vigilantism. That line was the use of deadly force by the person he was chasing. It’s why he was able to kill Scorpio in the first film and be morally justified by the traffic cops on a rampage in the second film when they shot unarmed people. At the end of The Dead Pool, Harry announces (and is correct) that the killer has run out of bullets in his gun before Harry shoots him with a comically large harpoon. He knows the killer is no longer a threat, and he shoots him anyway. That’s not the action of Harry Callahan. This is one of the major reasons I honestly feel like this was a generic cop movie that Callahan’s name was slapped onto, or it could be that the screenwriter and director simply didn’t understand the character at all.
So, it’s not really a Dirty Harry movie, but it’s a perfectly functional mystery cop movie. It raises an interesting question about media responsibility before kind of forgetting that it asked it. The mystery works in the most basic of terms, but there’s little to grasp onto narratively while it seemingly knowingly descends into silliness with a particular car chase. It’s the least of the Dirty Harry films, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it bad.