Eastwood report: Magnum Force

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Magnum Force does the respectable sequel thing and turns the original on its head, or perhaps inside-out.  If Dirty Harry is about society’s need to have tarnished knights who look out for the rights of the many, Magnum Force is about society’s need to be protected from those who would circumvent due process in their zeal to punish.  In other words, it’s about Harry Callahan confronting the world he helped create in the original movie.

I didn’t hold very high hopes for Magnum Force, so let me just say that I found it about three times more entertaining and better produced than I thought it would be.  It’s beautifully shot, as most Eastwood movies are from here on out, it presents the character in a good many interesting predicaments, and Eastwood moves through the narrative with the calm assurance that he owns every scene.  The setup (a squad of rookie cops have taken it upon themselves to dispense rough justice to society’s wrongdoers) is colorful without being too far-fetched or cartoonish, and the stunt work is rather amazing, inventive and well-staged: at least a dozen times I involuntarily winced as something shocking and brutal unfolded — a car crash, a shoot-out, a letter-bomb, a poisoning, an impalement.  It’s good pulpy fun that walks the edge of silliness without plunging over the side.  The quartet of homicidal street-cops, with their uniforms, their boyish good looks and their easy-going demeanor make for excellent bad guys, whose helmets and uniforms become a mask they use to separate themselves from their brutal acts.

Although it’s never boring, it does take its sweet time getting started.  Oh, the killings leap right out of the gate, but Callahan (who the credits identify as "Calahan" — a typo that other typos must look upon with great awe and respect) doesn’t get involved in the case to any significant degree until the movie is almost half-way over.  He’s not exactly a passive protagonist, more like a lackadaisical one, who spends a healthy chunk of the movie pursuing other interests while the narrative gradually coalesces around him.

Instead of binding Callahan to the central case, the narrative spends more time just kind of following him around as he does stuff.  Some of the stuff he does ends up having bearing on the central narrative, and some of it functions like divertissments in a ballet — little showcases to allow the character some breathing room without actually propelling the narrative forward.  So, for instance, as Dirty Harry has its little character-establishing scene where Callahan foils a bank robbery while calmly eating a hot dog (which everyone, including the guy who wrote the scene, John Milius, consistently misidentifies as a hamburger), Magnum Force has a long, extended, expensive, thoroughly ludicrous sequence where Callahan, apropos of nothing, decides to drive to the airport, to get a hamburger, and while he’s there foils a airplane hijacking.  The sequence, I’m sure, had crowds cheering in 1973 when hijackings were in vogue, but now it’s transparent and silly, a piece of "bigger and better" sequelitis that Magnum Force is otherwise mostly free of.

Harry Callahan has cheered up quite a bit since Dirty Harry, which makes me a little sad — he’s quite thoroughly unrepentently misanthropic in the original, which made him a lot more interesting.  We spend a lot of time in Dirty Harry wondering how the hell poor Callahan ended up so deeply unhappy.  We don’t buy that he’s actually a racist or a homophobe, we see that those are badges he wears to keep people away from him.  But the Harry Callahan in Magnum Force is a much more reasonable man (which the narrative, I suppose, demands him to be), a man who is steady and sure and has no trouble connecting with others, so long as it’s on his terms.  He’s chatty and friendly with his new partner, he bonds with the rookies over their shooting skills (before he knows they’re the bad guys), and he even finds time to get cozy with one of the women who throw themselves at him.

Which, let me just say, I don’t quite understand the cinematic strategy here.  Eastwood is tall and good-looking — he’s every inch a movie star.  Theoretically, women (in the audience) would want to have sex with him under any circumstances.  Why did the young(ish) Eastwood insist on illustrating the point for so many years?  Over and over, women march right up to him and say "Oh boy, do I ever want to have sex with you."  In Coogan’s Bluff, Eastwood even contrives to have a trapeze performer swing down out of the sky in order to come on to him.  It’s bizarre, and I can’t figure out what it’s trying to serve.  Did Eastwood worry that women might not find his onscreen persona attractive if he didn’t explicitly spell it out for them?  You don’t see women throwing themselves at George Clooney or Brad Pitt these days, and I don’t remember them throwing themselves at Redford or Hoffman in Eastwood’s day — or even at Eastwood’s nemesis Woody Allen, who was much more likely to have the sexual energy flowing in the opposite direction, as it were.

In any case, two comely lasses prostrate themselves at Eastwood’s feet in Magnum Force, and one actually succeeds in scoring an evening with him.  And I suppose even misanthrope Harry Callahan deserves a love life, but again, I keep coming back to Greg House, and how the creators of his TV show manage to keep him a compelling, fascinating character without ever softening him — if anything, House has become a more unlikeable character as the years have gone by.  Dirty Harry was compelled to catch Scorpio because it was the only thing he had in his life, but the Harry Callahan of Magnum Force tracks down and defeats his bad guys because it’s the right thing to do.  That’s still compelling in movie terms, but it makes Magnum Force an entertainment instead of a drama.


8 Responses to “Eastwood report: Magnum Force”
  1. curt_holman says:

    “Eastwood’s nemesis Woody Allen”

    I think you should devote a post elaborating on your theme of Clint Eastwood vs. Woody Allen.

  2. planettom says:

    I’ve noticed an odd thing on several occasions. People who’ve never seen a DIRTY HARRY movie have an overdeveloped expectation for how “Dirty” Harry is. What I mean is, they seem to expect a bad cop, vices, debauchery, like maybe something akin to Harvey Keitel’s BAD LIEUTENANT.

    Then when they actually see one of the films, they’re like, “Uh, so, he’s just really good at shooting bad guys?”

    It’s like how people who’ve never seen DELIVERANCE seem to have this perception that it’s a two-hour celebration of Southern sodomy.

  3. stormwyvern says:

    I wonder if this film somehow made the mistake of thinking that pursuit of Scorpio was not the only thing Harry Callahan had in his life, but rather a task he needed to complete so that he could move on and have a normal life?

    It’s nice to know that Magnum Force does some things right and is at least an enjoyable film if not a great sequel. (I generally feel that a successful sequel is one that I like even better than the first movie, because it has the benefit of the first movie getting all of the character introductions and concept setup out of the way and should therefore be able to dive right in with a great new story about characters you already know from a film you’ve seen and liked.) But I can’t help but wonder how interesting this movie might have been if Harry Callahan was still as misanthropic as he was in the first film and the rookie cops were just so far over the line that even a guy like Harry eventually realizes that they need to be stopped.

    • black13 says:

      “I wonder if this film somehow made the mistake of thinking that pursuit of Scorpio was not the only thing Harry Callahan had in his life, but rather a task he needed to complete so that he could move on and have a normal life?”

      That actually makes kind of sense. In the last scene of Dirty Harry, he threw his badge away. Perhaps they figured that it made him think about who and what he had become, and he tried to change his way.

      The Harry Callahan of Sudden Impact was something of an amalgam of Dirty Harry-Harry and Magnum Force-Harry. He was much more of a misanthropic curmudgeon in Sudden Impact than in Magnum Force, but more open to people than in Dirty Harry.

  4. Did Eastwood worry that women might not find his onscreen persona attractive if he didn’t explicitly spell it out for them?

    I suspect that this wasn’t for the women in the audience so much as the men. The ladies, may I point out, were likely about 1/100th of the audience. It wasn’t so much to exite the women, but for the guys who wanted to be Harry Callahan. Sean Connery’s 007 comes to mind, and once again that role appealed to men way more than women.

    • Todd says:

      I disagree that women were 1/100th of Clint Eastwood’s audience — even today, when I talk about Eastwood movies I’m surprised at the number of women who seek them out and enjoy them.

      On the other hand, the “women throwing themselves at him” thing does remind me of Bond, specifically the Roger Moore bond of Eastwood’s era, who would walk into a room, say hi to a woman and then start pawing her.

  5. toliverchap says:

    I just recently watched this series for the first time for a podcast I do:

    I think Magnum Force is just great! I’d be a happy man if I could get that opening theme as a ringtone.