I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Magnum Force

DIRTY HARRY is probaly a better movie overall, but as far as sequels go I think MAGNUM FORCE is a work of genius, because it does two things.

ONE:

It does a good job of following the template of the original and delivering alot of what people liked about that one, for example the classic hot dog/bank robbery scene is replaced by a scene where he goes to get a hamburger at an airport cafe and ends up stopping a hijacking. You gotta love when he butts into the security pow wow at the airport, they tell him what’s going on, he asks “Can I make a suggestion?” and it cuts to him walking toward the plane wearing a pilot’s uniform. Classic!

Magnum ForceI like to think Harry is still out there somewhere stopping crimes during lunch. On the other hand he deserves some peace, so I hope there is at least time to swallow his food first. The still chewing the food angle is what makes it so awesome, but I am not greedy. Harry Callahan has earned the right to finish his lunch.

The action in MAGNUM FORCE is real good. I especially like the motorcycle chase. There are lots of clever ideas like the big shooting competition which seems like it’s just there to show off the guns and have the cool visuals of shooting the wooden targets, but turns out to be an important element of Harry’s detective work that causes him to solve the case. And there are lots of funny lines and good character moments, like the way Harry seems so enamored of these guys who we already know are probaly the bad guys, and wants to put him on his team when he gets back to homicide.

This is also the one where Harry gets hit on by an old friend’s wife, gets a booty call from a neighbor he just met and reveals that he values marksmanship over sexual preference. (“Tell you something. If the rest of you could shoot like them, I wouldn’t care if the whole damn department was queer.”) So maybe that’s some goofy sequel shit, I don’t know. I think it’s entertaining.

TWO:

So it’s able to pass as a “more of the same” sequel but at its heart it’s actually a rebuttal of DIRTY HARRY, or at least a devil’s advocate kind of “yeah, but what about this” question. At the beginning it pulls you in by showing, like in the first one, how the system doesn’t work. Some smarmy organized crime figures are acquitted of killing cops, everybody knows they’re guilty but they get away with it, there are crowds outside practically rioting they’re so pissed. Later there’s a scene where one of Harry’s older colleagues freaks out and rants about how “hoods” can get away with killing cops but cops could never get away with killing “hoods.” (So far, all of this is the exact opposite of how it seems to work now – it’s cops that seem to always get off despite overwhelming evidence against them. But this is the ’70s and Dirtyharryland.)

But as these mobsters get off scott free and arrogantly drive off into freedom a cop pulls them over and is kind of harassing them. And you’re kind of thinking ha ha, stick it to these bastards any way you can. And then the cop pulls out a gun and executes them. And you think oh, uh, I’m not with this cop. I just met him. Well, it’s getting pretty late, gotta work in the morning. See ya!

So now we realize what different territory we’re in for the sequel. The bad guys are not serial killers, they’re traffic cops who decide to start executing criminals so they can’t beat the system. With Scorpio there was no grey area, you cannot sympathize with that guy. With these guys you have to think “well, they want the same thing Harry wants.” And you don’t have to stretch it as much to see how alike they are. But only Harry can or will stop these guys.

That’s the beauty of it. The first one seemed to argue that cops should be able to break the rules to stop the bad guys. This one shows that, wait a minute, maybe that isn’t such a good idea. We know Harry, he’s our buddy. We can trust Harry to do it. But can we also trust Robert Urich, and Tim Matheson, and some of their other chums? Where do we draw the line?

These themes are brilliantly summed up in the badass opening credits. A new, even funkier Lalo Schifrin song plays as the credits roll out next to Harry’s hand holding his .44 in front of a bright red background. At the end of the credits we hear that “do you feel lucky” speech from the first one, but at the end as he asks the question the gun turns toward the camera. The first time I saw it I was thinking it looked so cool and then when it pointed at the camera I thought whoah, this is kind of uncomfortable, and then I realized what was going on. I was the punk. I thought that speech was funny when I was with Harry, hovering over that dude laying on the ground. But what about when the gun is pointed at me? Do I feel lucky?

Man, I love that opening. It turns the first one on its ass, in a good way, while also looking like some funky James Bond type of shit. And it’s made all the more interesting by the fact that one of the writers was John Milius, noted Hollywood right winger, writer/director of RED DAWN. I could never figure out how he got involved in this one, and I was dying to hear his commentary on the new DVD. Sure enough he talks proudly about the way MAGNUM FORCE questions the politics of DIRTY HARRY. He seems to agree with the blowing away of criminals (even when done by the bad guys) but knew that asking where the line is drawn was important, or at least good drama.

Interestingly he doesn’t say anything about turning the gun on the audience during the credits and making them into the punk. So it makes me wonder if really it was just supposed to look cool and nobody thought about that. Or maybe that part belonged to co-writer Michael Cimino. (I guess he finished the script after Milius left to direct DILLINGER, but he’s never mentioned on the commentary or any of the extras.)

I think I’ve heard somebody say that this sequel was made to appease people like Pauline Kael who said the first one was fascist. But even if so that’s not a safe way to do it. Since the first one was so popular it was pretty risky to challenge its ideas. Here is an example of a guy who even to this day is confused by the idea of the vigilante cops being the bad guys.

At the end Harry’s philosophy is maybe spelled out a little to clearly, but I still dig it. “Briggs, I hate the god damn system,” he says. “But until someone comes along with changes that make sense, I’ll stick with it.”

So to me MAGNUM FORCE is up there with the best sequels. A sequel can be great by delivering on just one of those things – recreating what was great about the original, or trying a new direction that you didn’t expect. It’s rare that a movie succeeds at both. So good job MAGNUM FORCE.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Thursday, June 12th, 2008 at 8:04 am and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

11 Responses to “Magnum Force”

  1. Yo! I just bought the Special Edition DVD of “The Deer Hunter” and it comes with a booklet which mentions Michael Cimino re-writing this film, and it describes it as “the even more reactionary sequel to “Dirty Harry”” I was kind of taken aback (a back?) by this and I just wondered what you (and others) thought of this. The Booklet is written by a guy called Ryan Gilbey, if anyone knows who that is (I don’t)

  2. Gilbey is a movie critic for the Guardian, a UK newspaper. Same paper that assassinated reporter worked for in THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM.

    Speaking of Cimino, he did a terrific commentary for his pretty good crime/cop melodrama YEAR OF THE DRAGON…and alot of times he wasn’t necessarily talking of the movie, but his entire career in general. The guy certainly praises and thanks Clint more than once for letting him direct THUNDERBOLT & LIGHTFOOT.

    Apparently he did a track for DEER HUNTER on the European R2 DVD. I’m sure its good too. And if the rumors are true that Criterion is tackling HEAVEN’S GATE next year, he should do a track for that DVD as well.

  3. This is my favorite of the whole series and certainly in the discussion of great sequels. Surprised Vern didn’t mention Hal Holbrook, in the kind of role that’s been reprised again and again in cop films, even great ones (think James Cromwell in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL).

  4. There’s a documentary up on Netflix, MILIUS, about John and his work that I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone reading this, especially Vern. Clint, Arnold, Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, Michael Mann, and a whole host of others talking about the work and the man.

  5. onthewall2983 – I’ve seen it. Good shit. I have to say I was quite shocked to learn about Milius in recent years having a stroke and trying to rehab out of that, which basically forced him to quit his Genghis Kahn movie. :(

  6. I’ve seen MILIUS too and it’s awesome, though I too was shocked and saddened to hear he had a stroke

    Arnold Schwarzenegger especially comes off as a more gracious and intelligent guy than most people give him credit for

  7. The David Milch story (won’t spoil it here as it’s too awesome a scene) was really nice. Also awesome was seeing Buzz Feitshans in the flesh in something, as he’s always been a name that sticks out from certain movies, especially a lot of the ones reviewed here.

  8. Both Eastwood and Milius have said in interviews that they tried to reign in the right wing politics of the original with MAGNUM FORCE. And I guess pitting Callahan against a bunch of fascists was the only way to do it without changing Harry’s personality too much. Anyhow, it works. And MAGNUM FORCE (or MAGNUM 44 as the Norwegian dvd cover says) is the Dirty Harry movie I watch the most. It would have been a great thriller even if the main character had carried a Colt 1911 and been called Ben Shockley.

  9. The Original Paul

    June 29th, 2015 at 7:14 pm

    Since we don’t have a working forum right now (well, technically I think it’s still there, it’s just been overrun by spambots), can I interject a random comment here to say how disappointed I am after re-watching MAGNUM FORCE? Goddamn it, I remember that movie being fairly good, although I never liked it as much as DEAD POOL or DIRTY HARRY. (DEAD POOL I freely admit is probably worse from an objective standpoint, but it also has the harpoon gun and Jim Carrey and Liam Neeson and the exploding toy car and all of the other little bizarre touches that make it watchable.)

    Anyway, MAGNUM FORCE… it’s probably been ten or fifteen years since I last watched it. As you guys know, I recently got the DIRTY HARRY collection on DVD, and I thought I’d start with the “middle one”. The one that had stuck in my mind ok but wasn’t as good as the original DIRTY HARRY. Sadly, time has not been kind to this film, and I think I was looking at it with a lot of rose-tinted nostalgia.

    So what I remembered most about this film was the image of the traffic-cop as killer. Re-watching it, it’s still a striking image, and I like the way that the “kills” are directed. The anonymous traffic cop killer figure is a convincingly scary killer. The rest of the film, I’m not as thrilled about. Callahan is pretty much a dunce for most of the film, focussing all of his attention on the complete wrong suspect (the reveal of the real killers is played as a semi-twist even though I can’t imagine anybody in the audience being fooled into thinking that Harry’s alcoholic friend is the actual killer). There’s a garage scene that I remember being fairly atmospheric, but now just comes across as having been stolen wholesale from THE BODYSNATCHERS, up to and including the pod people finishing each others’ phrases. Except that these are supposed to be actual people, who don’t speak like that. And why risk the bomb in the mailbox the following day? Why not just kill Callahan then and there? Did anybody even know he was was there at the time?

    The killers, when they’re seen in their normal personalities, all come across as actors pretending to be traffic cops – not actual cops. Nothing about them seems “real”. They don’t seem to have any distinguishing personality traits at all, which I guess is supposed to be the point; but again, this isn’t a damn BODYSNATCHERS movie. Then you’ve got Hal Holbrook as the Lieutenant. Again, I remember liking this character previously, despite the fact that basically the only liberal in the movie turns out to be a murderous hypocrite. But he’s got very little to work with here. I guess the main scene is his drive with Callahan to wherever the heck they end up for the finale, but I got very little out of this scene. You’d think there’d at least be a shared history between these two men, a sense of “Where the heck did our paths divide?” or something like that. But no, there’s nothing like that. The direction doesn’t help either.

    Plus the final confrontation between Callahan and Briggs requires them both to be complete incompetent idiots, repeatedly. And I do mean repeatedly – Callahan lets himself get captured twice, Briggs gives himself away as the vigilante leader completely unnecessarily, etc. This bugs me. I get that it’s a nice bit of dramatic irony to have the Lieutenant eventually killed by the bomb that he himself planted in Callahan’s mailbox. But it doesn’t help make him look like more of a sharpened foil for Callahan. I remember this movie having a less black-and-white view on the politics of police work, but I don’t remember it coming at the expense of intelligence or wit.

    Yeah, this one has some good action scenes, but unfortunately not much else to recommend it. Its main sin is that pretty much all of the characters in it are either too stupid or too bland to be interesting. Sadly this includes Callahan himself, and not even a good performance by Clint can undo this.

    I’m hoping that SUDDEN IMPACT or THE ENFORCER will make any kind of impact on me (I don’t remember a thing about either of them, despite having tried to watch them on multiple occasions, which is never a good sign), that DIRTY HARRY is the classic that I remember it being, and that I still find DEAD POOL enjoyable for the batshit crazy stuff in it like the harpoon and the toy car and stuff. ‘Cause MAGNUM FORCE did not do it for me this time around. Damn it.

  10. The Original Paul

    June 29th, 2015 at 7:15 pm

    Actually it seems that I’m wrong about the spambots. I’ve just checked the forums and the last posts there are from very much human posters. Nice job Chris!

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