23.7.14

The Dead Pool (1988)

The 411 on the 415

In this star-studded fifth and final Dirty Harry movie from Clint Eastwood the central case concerns a morbid game, called the dead pool, where the players try to guess which celebrity will die next. Horror movie director Peter Swan (Liam Neeson) is one of the participants, but when the star of his music video, and coincidentally one of the names on his list, rocker Johnny Squares (Jim Carrey), suddenly dies from an overdose, he becomes a suspect. Along the way Harry runs into dedicated reporter Samantha Walker (Patricia Clarkson), who takes a kind eye to his unkind face, while struggling with the media's role in the violent modern world.


Word on the street

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Rap sheet

It's five years later. 1988, the year after the universe gave us another iconic hardcore cop: RoboCop. Dirty Harry is starting to look fairly burned out, and it's reasonable to wonder if there's still a place in the world for these movies. That feeling will not dissipate during the opening of The Dead Pool, which comes across like an alternate credit sequence from The Streets of San Francisco.

Then we get into more pressing issues: Why is Jim Carrey miming to a Guns N' Roses song? Why is he acting like he's in Batman and Robin? (The only Batman movie worse that the one he was actually in.) And why is Oscar Schindler directing an Exorcist knockoff!? It's all very mysterious. Of course, we're on the set of a music video, so it's all just fun and games. The question is, do you really want fun and games in your Dirty Harry movie?


Once again the script is the major issue here.

So there's a dead pool. People are betting on what celebrity will die next, but suddenly the people on that list are being murdered. Could somebody be trying to rig the game? That's plot 1. Then it turns out that there's a killer trying to frame one of the dead pool players, because of some unknown vendetta. That's plot 2. Then Harry's name shows up on the list, and simultaneously a gangster boss is trying to kill him. That's plot 3, and a bit of plot 1, but mostly irrelevant to plot 2. Then we have the reporter trying to get the scoop on Harry's story, while struggling with the way modern media is obsessed with blood and death. That's plot 4, but also ties into plot 1, but again, it's completely irrelevant to plot 2. And guess what plot strain turns out to be the true plot of The Dead Pool? Yup, number 2. The one plot strand which is always at odds with all the other potentially interesting stories.


The dead pool story is dull, but it could have worked, if we were introduced to the participants and they turned out to be cool, interesting individuals. Then we could start to suspect which one of them is trying to rig the game. Instead The Dead Pool turns out to be about an obsessed horror fan, and the actual dead pool part of the story is more or less irrelevant.

There's also potential in the connection between Harry and the female reporter. Jumping into bed with enemy no. 1, the media, is almost worse than sleeping with a suspect! Of course, this is inexplicably the one and only film where Harry suddenly has good press, which directly works against that conflicted cop/reporter love story.


Meanwhile the film flirts with the media's (and the public's) fascination with blood and gore. Another interesting angle, especially when it's tied into the cop/reporter story. She's conflicted about the media providing these bloody stories, Harry is conflicted about dating her, meanwhile he's the one supplying the bloody stories she's conflicted about covering. Look, it all ties together. That story would have made for a great movie, because it would force Harry to take a good look at himself. The drama would reach its crescendo during the scene where Harry is called out to a situation where a man wants to set himself on fire, unless he gets on TV. Harry plays Samantha's cameraman and suddenly the two would-be lovers are standing side by side, literally facing her professional dilemma.

Unfortunately every good element in The Dead Pool is a red herring. None of the stories play out the way I've laid out above. The film only uses these wonderful interlocking conflicts to distract itself from the real plot: An obsessed horror movie fan with a restraining order trying to kill a director, who doesn't want to read his script. Funny how those raving madmen with no connection to reality, suddenly become very apt at navigating the real world, when they have a murder spree to unleash, by the way.


Oh, lest we forget: This week's disconnected-pointless-look-how-cool-Harry-is scene comes 22 minutes into the story. It features Harry reading a fortune cookie for a robber in a Chinese restaurant ("It says... You're shit outta luck!"), and some kung fu from Harry's new Asian partner.

I'm getting tired complaining over Harry's incompetence, so here's the quick lowdown, before we wrap this up: In The Dead Pool Harry's almost killed in a mob hit because he doesn't realize two cars following him might be a bad thing. And he manages to get blown up by a toy car filled with explosives, after failing to make his getaway during a 20 minute car chase. Let me reiterate: We're talking about a chase between Harry in a real car for humans and a FREAKIN' TOY CAR! And he LOSES!

But the Coup de grâce, the most disheartening moment, comes during the final showdown when the killer orders Harry to drop his gun, while he's threatening to kill a woman with a knife. What does Harry do? He complies. Dirty Harry Callahan drops his gun at the command of a madman with nothing more than a knife.... Guys, why you gotta do me like this? It's like you don't even know Harry any more.


Final report

The Dead Pool, despite being the shortest of the Dirty Harry movies, is a chore to get through. It's a dull, unfocused story, with a dull ending, full of wasted potential. An embarrassing finishing to a decidedly shaky franchise.