THE DEAD POOL is the fifth, last, and worst of the DIRTY HARRY series. It’s still watchable because it’s Dirty Fuckin Harry, but it completes the pattern of each entry being not as good as the last.
It’s important to consider the time of the release though. In the US it came out 20 years from last month. July 13th, 1988. It was a Wednesday. Harrison Ford was out celebrating his 46th birthday. One of the girls from the “High School Musical”s was being born. Long haired kids in Minneapolis were trying to find someone to buy them beer at a convenience store near the Metrodome where the Monsters of Rock Tour would be playing that night. Red Sox fans were trying to figure out what to make of John McNamara being replaced by Joe Morgan. Ronald Reagan was signing Executive Order 12646, establishing an emergency board to investigate a dispute between the Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corporation and certain of its employees represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. And there was a new fuckin Dirty Harry movie coming out!
If you’re too young to remember it or if you had substance abuse problems at the time and also don’t remember it let’s try to picture it: it’s the middle of summer. You like action movies. RAMBO III has been out since May, but it wasn’t very good. You don’t give two shits about CROCODILE DUNDEE II. This summer needs a really good action movie. I mean, THE PRESIDIO? Not that exciting. RED HEAT? Okay I guess. ROGER RABBIT was cute but… I don’t know. So you’re excited to go out and see that new DIRTY HARRY movie! You should be able to get out of work on time to get to the theater. Hopefully it won’t be sold out yet. Yeah, man, DIRTY FUCKIN HARRY! THE DEAD POOL! You’re fuckin THERE. Even if it’s not that good it’s gonna be the best thing out there. What else is coming out? The only other action movie is on Friday there’s that one about the skyscraper, with the guy from MOONLIGHTING. Pretty laughable.
(I’m not making that up, the DIRTY HARRY series really ended two days before the DIE HARD series started.)
Man, what was up with the ’80s? How is it that the most recent DIRTY HARRY is by far the most dated? If Callahan is a registered voter I’m sure he voted for Reagan, and this is what he got. Eight years of that shit and you end up with Lalo Schifrin having to use synthesized drums.
It’s very 1988 that the main theme of the movie is the morbid fascination with celebrity. The “Dead Pool” of the title is a list of celebrities people are betting will die. And some sicko takes it and decides to kill everybody on it. Harry is on the list, which seemed like a good bet because the mob was pissed at him for busting one of their big shots. So now he’s got the mob after him and this stalker too.
One of the suspects and/or potential victims is Liam Neeson as a pretentious horror director, so there’s a bunch of shit on the set of a shitty horror movie. Maybe the most memorable scene of the movie, for all the wrong reasons, is Jim Carrey (as the junkie rock star Johnny Squares) lip synching “Welcome to the Jungle.” I guess at the time the movie was made that song hadn’t really caught on yet, and there was no way to know that Jim Carrey would be a superstar, so it’s just bad luck that you can’t watch that scene now without thinking “Whuh? Is Jim Carrey supposed to be Axl Rose?”
Meanwhile Harry is commanded to be nicer to the media, who he hates. Reporters are part of this morbid fascination with celebrity, and Harry represents rejecting that. When some reporters try to mob Johnny Squares’s widow right after she found out he was dead (SPOILER) Harry takes their camera and tosses it. The reporter is played by Patricia Clarkson (her second movie role, after THE UNTOUCHABLES) and she sort of forces Harry to go to dinner with her as his punishment and they strike up a relationship.
As you know Harry always has to wear a disguise during a tense standoff, so in this one he pretends to be a cameraman when a guy dousing himself in gasoline and holding two flares demands to be interviewed on TV. Usually these scenes are played for laughs, but this one is all tension and it fits that celebrity theme. This guy is at the end of his rope and his solution is to beg to be on TV.
And I’m not sure what it’s trying to say exactly, but there’s some attempt to explore the idea of movies causing violence. Neeson says, “People are fascinated with death and violence. That’s why my films make money. They’re an escape, a vicarious release of fear. Same thing with this game. Nobody takes my films or the dead pool seriously.” But of course his character is a prick, and he turns out to be wrong – a guy is taking his movies very seriously, claiming they come from his nightmares, and re-enacting them to get revenge for the theft of his nightmares. Maybe this is saying that movies do cause violence? Or maybe it’s saying you would have to be a nut to shoot somebody because you saw it in a Dirty Harry movie. I don’t think it’s doing that classic punk move of saying “you think action movies are violent, what about horror movies? Those are the real problem.”
(TANGENT: That’s the same as a lame argument made by some rappers I like.
Jay-Z: “Are you sayin what I’m spittin / is worse than these celebutantes showin’ they kitten– you kiddin?”
Nas: “They say I’m all about murder-murder and kill-kill / But what about Grindhouse and Kill Bill?”
In both cases these rhymes are surrounded by much smarter ones, but those ones make me cringe. I hate that these guys are pointing their fingers at somebody else instead of just standing up for their art on its own merit. I mean, hip hop and KILL BILL are both worth defending. And “celebutantes showin they kitten” is the business of the celebutantes who the kittens belong to. Let the Taliban get mad about that shit and go write some more rhymes.
[But at least GRINDHOUSE got mentioned on a Nas album.])
Of course it’s always good to see Harry back. There’s some good action (flipping his car when mobsters shoot at him) and funny moments (pulling his Magnum on some guys who turn out to be asking him for his autograph). But it’s not as funny as most of them, the villain is not as scary as a Scorpio, and San Francisco doesn’t even look as interesting because most of it takes place at night. I like that it’s a Dirty Harry for its time, but I guess it just wasn’t as good of a time as when the earlier ones were made.
The director is Buddy Van Horn, Clint’s long time stunt double, which is kind of a cool choice for a movie where the killer impersonates a celebrity. Van Horn does fine, not spectacular. The script was written by some friends of Clint’s who didn’t write any other movies, and I don’t think it really has as many good touches as you need in these movies. I do like the part where they tell Clint that Evan C. Kim is transferring to homicide, expecting him to be mad, but he says it’s a good idea because homicide could always use more cops with his experience. Everything is cool until this installment’s Stupid Bureaucrat character blurts out that it will be good for the department’s image to have a Chinese-American on the force. And the poor bastard looks sad because it’s like saying he doesn’t deserve the promotion. Kind of a nod to THE ENFORCER when whatsername clearly notices that they’re using her to make the department not seem sexist.
But I don’t know, some of the script seems slightly lazy. Harry will take the time to pause and make a joke before shooting somebody and it makes no sense. Like why does the guy not shoot Harry while he’s making his fortune cookie joke? Another thing that’s a little lazy is at the end when they come up with the idea of Harry impaling the bad guy with a harpoon. Pretty cool. They set up the existence of the harpoon and everything, but they don’t bother to make it seem justified. The guy is out of bullets and not that tough. I am 100% positive that Harry could’ve grabbed him by the face with one hand and held him until backup got there. Instead he executes him on the spot. So it makes the climax of the movie ridiculous and transparent about just trying to find a cool way to kill the bad guy. I mean there was a real thematic significance to the sudden impact of the guy in SUDDEN IMPACT. The only significance to the way this guy is turned into a dead pool is that Slash used the harpoon earlier in a music video.
I guess the killer using exploding remote control cars to attack is pretty clever. And apparently they had to get the world champion of remote control car racing to drive the thing. You don’t really think about that when you’re watching it, how hard it would be to control that thing.
I don’t think the movie is embarrassing or anything, but it’s too bad it has to be the last one. I was really hoping that recent rumor was true that they were working on a new one about a long-retired Harry having to go after some killer for some reason. Clint doesn’t seem convinced you can do another one, but somebody oughta convince him. I think the Eastwood of today could make a much more fitting end to the series.
Of course, what’s really missing in DEAD POOL is Albert Popwell, who played different characters in all four of the other DIRTY HARRYs. Maybe his absence is what cursed DEAD POOL. And since he passed away in ’99 he wouldn’t be in a new one either, subjecting it to that same bad mojo.
Oh well. Even if we never see Harry again at least he didn’t go out THAT bad. The movie is watchable. He’s still Harry. It’s not PG-13. He doesn’t have a wisecracking young partner to make the movie relatable to a new generation. He’s not straight to video. He didn’t make it into the digital age. And he managed to make a five movie series where none of them totally suck. Here’s to you, Harry Callahan.
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.