The 411 on the 415
It's 1983, the year of Return of the Jedi, and the Dirty Harry franchise has come out of retirement to tell the story about a series of brutal murders. A young woman is wreaking revenge on the punks who gang-raped her and her sister, by seeking them out one by one, and shooting them in the head and in the balls.
Word on the street
"Go ahead, make my day."
"Listen, punk. To me you're nothin' but dogshit, you understand? And a lot of things can happen to dogshit. It can be scraped up with a shovel off the ground. It can dry up and blow away in the wind. Or it can be stepped on and squashed. So take my advice and be careful where the dog shits ya!"
Two lovers are getting it on in a car parked by the bay at night. Suddenly, in the middle of the moaning and rustling of clothes there's the distinct sound of a gun being cocked. Moments later two shots ring out, and just like that we've got another case for Dirty Harry.
Pop quiz, hotshot. What follows next? Is it A) time for Harry to get right to it, take on this case, wrap it up in a quick, and be home in time for cornflakes? Or do we B) once again need establish Harry's badassery in an unnecessary show of force?
That would be B. Not only that, but we start the film with a trial, where the judge throws out clear evidence of murder, because Harry didn't have proper cause for a search. He didn't even beat anybody up this time, he just had a hunch, and it turned out to be correct! Maybe San Francisco's problem isn't Harry's excessive use of violence, but the utter ineptitude of the city's prosecutors? So after that lengthy scene, including a confrontation between Harry and the recently released punks, we get the Harry-is-a-badass scene, when he walks into a half empty diner to disturb a robbery in progress. Four heavily armed men have inexplicably decided to rob the cash-register of this small establishment, plus steal from a handful of patrons. What's the score going to be? $15 and a Junior Mint? Anyway, it allows Harry to burst into the place and say his famous "Go ahead, make my day" line, which everyone thinks is from the first film, and kill everybody. Then Harry walks into the middle of a mob-wedding to give the bride's father a heart attack (Hey, that's Frank Pentangeli from The Godfather II). And after ALL that, Harry finally shows up at the crime scene from the cold open, which fells like an hour and a half ago (it's 17 minutes).
Most of this feels completely redundant. This is simply NOT efficient storytelling. The whole point of this opening act is to establish the initial murder, and send Harry off on a BS assignment to a safe little town, where he can't make trouble. Of course, by coincidence, he ends up right in the middle of a hornet's nest, with several murders connected to the first one. Beautiful, let's do it! It takes the film 45 minutes to get to that point! I haven't even mentioned the obligatory the-captain-yells-at-Harry scene, or the two different attempts on Harrys life, before he's despatched to Redneckville.
Why not tie the whole thing together? Harry disturbs a robbery. He kills the culprits, and one of them turns out to be the gangster boss' son. The gangsters put a price on his head. The captain sends him off to a small town. He says goodbye to his partner, who must now investigate a new murder on his own, but not before giving Harry a few details he can use later. Boom, done. 20 minutes max. What we have now is SO cumbersome. It's like Dirty Harry can't get out of his own way to tell a real story.
The only thing keeping me really interested in Sudden Impact is the subplot, where we follow the ice-cold, determined blonde. This is our killer, we know that early on. She visits her catatonic sister, she talks about "an event", and we see flashbacks to what happened years ago. It's pretty hardcore, and fairly intriguing. Although the lack of scope makes this neat little revenge story feel like something Colombo should handle in a quick episode. Of course, given the sexual implications of the story, and Harry's involvement with the killer, that wouldn't be appropriate.
For me the real heart of the story, and where it becomes interesting, is the potential relationship between Harry and the killer. Perhaps it had been better, if we didn't know this girl to be the killer quite as early. It would have been fun to see a version of this story, where Harry is genuinely reconsidering his life as a cop (perhaps he was wounded in an attempt on his life, before he left San Francisco), and at this crucial moment, he meets a kindred sprit. He falls in love, and only then do we discover she's the killer. That would create an interesting conflict for the character. As it stands now, the film is in too much of a hurry to build that scenario, it's got too many cartoonish moments, and too much overconfident grandstanding from Harry. Less clutter, and a bit more focus on Harry as a person would have allowed Sudden Impact to fully explore the potential of the setup. You could even tie it into him reconsidering his sexist ways after having lost a female partner in the previous film, which would add even more dimension to the current killing spree.
Alas, that is not the kind of film we're dealing with. Rather, it's the kind of film where - after those 45 minutes of crap I complained about earlier - we get this scene: The moment Harry arrives in Hick Town he comes across a bank robbery in progress. The robber flees on a motorcycle, and Harry hijacks a bus full of senior citizens to take pursuit - in a stunning display of slapstick that wouldn't feel out of place in The Benny Hill Show. All this to let the Chief in town know that Harry is a lose cannon, which let's them pick up right where Harry and his captain left off. Oh, great.
I'm being a little harder on the film than it really deserves. Truth be told, Sudden Impact is pretty entertaining, in a trashy way, and I guess back then - with the previous Dirty Harry movie a faint 7-year-old memory - it was necessary to reestablish the character and his faults. So even though the film is top-heavy, features some off-key moments (the bus-chase), and some absurd overacting (from Pat Hingle as the Chief, and Paul Drake and Audrie Neenan as two of the rapists, in particular) it's not a complete disaster.
For the first time in the franchise Clint Eastwood picks up the megaphone and finally directs himself. Like so many other movies from Eastwood the result is a decent-looking, fairly entertaining, but not great film. It's more fun to watch than the first one, and the story is better than the main plot of the third film, but the second one remains my favorite. Still, I feel they haven't quite created that perfect Dirty Harry film yet. Maybe fifth time is the charm?