Magnum Force (1973)

The 411 on the 415

Dirty Harry Callahan is back on the job, but he's sidelined and forced to work a BS stakeout operation by his unimpressed lieutenant. That is until a series of execution-style murders calls for all hands on deck. Career criminals, pimps, and lowlifes are the targets, and Harry suspects that a few young motorcycle cops are responsible.

Word on the street

"I never had to take my gun out of its holster once. I'm proud of that."
"Well, you're a good man, lieutenant. A good man always knows his limitations..."

"What does a girl have to do, to go to bed with you?"
"Try knocking on the door."

Rap sheet

The opening of Magnum Force is simple, beautiful, and effective. A riot scene in front of a courthouse, where yet another sleazy businessman (but really crook) has been acquitted. He drives off with his lawyer in a limousine, impervious to the cries of justice from the crowd. Moments later a motorcycle cop pulls him over. And then, in the middle of this seemingly inconspicuous traffic stop, the cop pulls out his gun and executes everyone in the car. As the last death twitches ride through the blood-soaked bodies, the cop calmly walks back to his motorcycle. Now THAT is pretty damn dirty.

So much in Magnum Force works better than in the first Dirty Harry movie.

We've got a clear, well-defined menace, a better sense of Harry as a person, a more credible work situation, and even a more or less competent police department. We get a proper foil in the vindictive and slightly incompetent Lt. Briggs, played with quiet menace by Hal Holbrook, and there's a real sense of threat from the young motorcycle studs - who appear to outperform Harry, even on the shooting range. As the story progresses Harry - the man, not just the cop - becomes a direct target, in a rather exhilarating way. So much so that he's even forced to step up and display some moderately advanced detective skills!

It doesn't even stop there. Magnum Force also manages to pose some interesting questions. Sure, Harry is quick to solve any situation with lead, but he's still more or less inside the law's comfort zone, at least compared to the bad guys. It's ironic and intriguing to see Harry argue for order and rules, in the face of total anarchy and lawlessness. "I hate the goddamn system!" he says at one point. "But until someone comes along with changes that make sense, I'll stick with it."

A strong story, with a clear bad guy helps this movie immensely, but there's still too much clutter for my taste. Fine, Harry is on loan to a stakeout operation - we don't need to see the stakeout, or the drama that plays out when the place is robbed at gunpoint.

Does Harry really need to stumble over yet another crime in progress in a the middle of a fast food pit stop? Does he need to dress up as an airline pilot, temporarily commandeer a passenger plane, and take out two hijackers with deadly force, to once again demonstrate his pertinacity for violence? Do we really need the scene where the awfully cute 4-foot-nothing Asian neighbor throws herself at him (are they worried we think he's gay)?

At some point the bad guys decide to eliminate a pimp. Go for it, but we don't need to see a long sequence, where a girl gets into a cab, tries to hide some money on her body, is surprised by said pimp, and finally killed with drain-cleaner, to establish the character. The pink pimpmobile pretty much does the same thing in two seconds flat.

And while I appreciate that they try to organize a decoy bad guy for us, they're not fooling anybody, and subsequently we're forced to waste more time by seeing Harry have dinner with his old friend's ex-wife, when he suspects that his friend has gone off the reservation.

Oh, and one last thing: At some point the filmmakers will have to make up theirs minds about whether the public knows Harry, or not. He can't both be a 'headline-grabbing menace to society', 'the shooting champion five years in a row', while being a stranger to his neighbors, and an unfamiliar face to seasoned criminals.

Final report

Despite a few reservation, Magnum Force is a solid, engaging film, and a vast improvement over the original. The iconic Dirty Harry character is starting to take shape, and things are beginning to get interesting.

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