Magnum Force: Clint Eastwood’s ‘Dirty Harry’ battles ultra-vigilantes in this expansive, episodic and very entertaining sequel

Magnum Force(1973), directed by Ted Post, is the very successful sequel to the iconic 1971 crime thriller, Dirty Harry. Clint Eastwood returns as the renegade-cop, Harry Callahan, in its relatively subdued version; the filmmakers have created a quartet of ultra-vigilante super-cops as the antagonists to tone down the criticism that Harry faced in the original for being a fascist cop.

A Man’s got to know his limitations

That’s the main punchline of the first ‘Dirty Harry’ sequel, Magnum Force(1973), as opposed to “Do i feel lucky” from the original Dirty Harry (1971); and there is no better movie star to whom that tagline applies than Clint Eastwood. Eastwood may play characters who are the epitome of power, ego and macho on screen, but, his growth from an obscure TV actor to the most revered, decorated and durable American movie legend was possible only because he knew his strengths and weakness fully well and worked within his limitations to slowly and steadily climb the ladder of stardom. After starting out as a TV star with the series Rawhide, Clint found movie stardom in Europe with the three Dollars films by Sergio Leone. He returned to Hollywood and started over again using his European success as a springboard. Fortunately, the Dollars films became big hits in US also. He started out by doing Hollywood variations of the “Man with no name” character that he had immortalized in the Dollars films. “Hang’em high” directed by Ted Post, who has directed him in several episodes of Rawhide, was the first of them. He continued the success streak by doing ensemble war films like Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s heroes, and with Dirty Harry in 1971, he found the role that would transform him into a bona fide superstar. The role of San Francisco detective Harry Callahan was turned down by every star in Hollywood. But Clint realized the potential in the character and how perfectly it suited him. Callahan is a Maverick cop who talks less and shoots more. He is worried more about the victim’s rights than the criminal’s and isn’t above bending the laws a little to achieve his objectives. The Don Siegel directed film was such a big success that a sequel was immediately put into production. But Dirty Harry also invited stringent criticism, especially for it’s violence, with noted critic Pauline Kael branding the film fascist. A scene where Harry tortures the villain Scorpio by stomping his foot on the villain’s bullet wound to extract information about an abducted girl turned out to be the most problematic. So, the sequel was (or at least appears) specifically designed to blunt these criticisms. Everybody associated with the film felt that Harry had to be softened a little to make him more appealing to the female audience, hence this film has more than one scene of women hitting on Harry and he obliging them. Then, by making him a cop who takes an open stand against vigilantism, much of the criticism that came the way of the first film was avoided, even if the the theme of anti-vigilantism does get lost in the heady cocktail of gunfights, car chases and overall amplified level of violence. Another major addition or change was the introduction of a black character as Harry’s partner; Early Smith, who was played by Felton Perry, was introduced mainly because there was widespread criticism about the ‘punk’ at the receiving end of Harry’s iconic “Do i feel lucky” speech in the original being an African-American. That was a strict no-no at a time when police brutality against the African-Americans were at their peak. All this shows that in this second coming of ‘Dirty Harry’, Clint and the makers were making extra sure to avoid any kind of controversy, and to ensure that Harry appeals to every section of the movie going audiences.

As for the plot of “Magnum Force”, well! Inspector Harry Callahan, the ‘King Arthur’ of San Francisco is back, brandishing his Magnum .44 like an Excalibur to vanquish evil in every corner of the city. Wherever there’s crime and injustice, Harry seems to miraculously appear there and set things right; at an airport, at a mall, in a busy street, it doesn’t matter, he’s omnipresent. Although the 1971 “Dirty Harry” ends with Harry discarding his badge in the river, i guess Harry was soon back on the force on public demand; he’s still packing his big gun and a badass attitude; still staring, squinting and talking down his superiors who are determined to dress him down at very given opportunity because he cares more for the victim’s rights than that of the criminals’. But Magnum Force also find ‘Dirty’ Harry’s convictions being called in to question when a new bunch of SFPD vigilante cops start taking the law into their own hands and eliminating the vicious criminals who are let free by the courts. They are the next generation of Dirty Harrys; younger, more skilled, more determined and cold-blooded, working under the leadership of someone higher up in the criminal justice system. Just like King Arthur’s chief nemesis turned out to be a superior breed of his own genes, these cops- who would later go up against Harry- could very well have been sired by Harry himself, if not biologically, but ideologically for sure. And when Harry come face to face with these new-age Harrys, it’s the battle of the gods, and this gives the film an epic scope that the original lacked. The original was a more grounded and gritty crime drama. The film opens with the killing of noted mobster and his gang members by a traffic cop, who pulls them over and cold-bloodedly shoots them down. The incident attracts the attention of Harry Callahan, who is not in homicide anymore, but still arrive at the scene to investigate. He immediately has an altercation with his superior Briggs(Hal Halbrook), who asks him to return to the stakeout. But Harry isn’t letting go off the case, as vicious criminals starts getting brutally killed one by one all over the city.

Harry is quick to deduce from the modus operandi of the killings that these are done by a cop or a bunch of cops; he believes that something of the sort of the ‘vigilante death squad’ they had in the Brazilian police force is being recreated in SFPD now. His suspicions falls on his old friend Charlie McCoy (Mitchell Ryan), who has become despondent and suicidal after leaving his wife, Carol (White). But, that quickly proves to be wrong, as McCoy also turns up dead; McCoy is killed by one of these vigilante cops, Davis, to eliminate a potential witness to his murder of the drug kingpin Lou Guzman (Pellow). It’s only a matter of time before Harry runs into the deadly quartet of John Davis (David Soul), Philip Sweet (Tim Matheson), Alan “Red” Astrachan (Kip Niven) and Michael Grimes (Robert Urich); cops who are behind the summary executions that has been taking place in the city. The first meeting between Harry and the deadly Quartet is a friendly one; it takes place at an indoor shooting range, where they match guns and their shooting abilities. It’s obvious that the ultra-vigilantes worships the proto-renegade cop in SFPD and Harry too seems to be impressed by the shooting skills of these ex-special forces members.

Harry and the vigilantes comes face to face again at an annual shooting competition, which Harry always used to win, but this time he’s beaten by Davis. Harry’s policemen instincts tell him there’s something creepy about this quartet. To test it, he borrows Davis’ Colt and purposely embeds a slug in a range wall. He later retrieves the slug to have ballistics confirm it to match the bullets from the Guzman murder. His suspicions are furthered when he comes to realize that Davis was the first officer to arrive after the murders of Guzman and McCoy. He presents his evidence to Briggs, who brushes it off. Instead, Briggs tasks him with the operation of taking down Guzman’s rival mobster, Palancio, whom he believes to be behind the double murder. As we will come to know soon enough, Briggs is the ‘Big Brother’ in the force nourishing the vigilante death squad, and he is determined to fix the blame on Palancio and sacrifice Harry in the operation, as Harry’s close to rocking his boat. The operation to nab Palancio, in which the Vigilantes are included at Harry’s insistence, goes horribly wrong, as Palancio and every one of his men are killed, and so is one of the vigilantes, the one named “Sweet”. Now, it’s more than obvious to Harry that the vigilante quartet- now reduced to a trio- had planned the massacre of the gang by tipping them off in advance. Soon, the remaining trio of Davis, Astrachan and Grimes comes visiting to offer Harry a proposition: if you are not with us, you’re against us, so join us or die. Harry refuses the offer, proving that he is not a complete vigilante, his vigilantism has his limits- as the main punchline of this film confirms. Vigilantism within limits allows Harry to retain his heroism and his moral center, but the sort of ‘without limits’ vigilantism practiced by Davis & Co turns them into villains. This is the crux of this film, and the aspect that redeems Harry from the ‘fascist’ criticism of the first film. The exact words that Harry uses to turn down the offer is “I’m afraid you’ve misjudged me,” This is a response, not just to the ultra-vigilantes, but also to the likes of Pauline Kael and other critics of the first film, who called him a fascist. Clint\Harry further reiterates his position in a later scene with Briggs, where he unequivocally states: “I hate the goddamn system. But until someone comes along with changes that make sense, I’ll stick with it.”

The trio doesn’t take kindly to the rejection of their offer; they try to kill Harry by planting a bomb in his mail box. Harry escapes, but his partner, Early Smith, is not very lucky, and is killed by a similar device by the trio before Harry could warn him. This leads to an all out battle between Harry and the trio of super-cops on the streets of San Francisco, in which the trio is aided by Briggs. The battle culminates in a tense cat and mouse chase on an old aircraft carrier in a shipbreaker’s yard, where Harry takes down the trio without the aid of his Magnum .44. He uses his fists and wits to overcome the overwhelming odds and proves why he’s the big dog in SFPD. It’s not the big gun that makes this big guy, but quite the reverse. Hence, the title “Magnum Force” is rather inaccurate or ironic, because he wins the big battle at the end without resorting to the force of his powerful Magnum. Maybe the title refers to the force of Harry’s personality, it’s more powerful than the world’s most powerful gun he’s holding, even though, the title sequence, where the credits roll beside a huge image of the said gun in profile in Harry’s hand say otherwise. The original title for the film was “Vigilance”, but was later changed to Magnum Force, named after not only for Harry’s super-weapon, but also for the ultra-vigilante squad of the SFPD.

The title sequence also has Lalo Schifrin’s iconic ‘Dirty Harry’ theme followed by Clint reciting an abridged version of the famous “Do i feel lucky” speech. This sequence perfectly sums up how “Magnum Force” is going to go from there; the film takes the most popular aspects of the first film: the gun, the punchlines, the music and of course, the very interesting and mass-appealing character of Dirty Harry as played by Clint Eastwood; and amplifies them to the point that it concentrates solely on them, without bothering about plot or narrative arcs. The film unveils in a episodic manner, with Harry propping up at different places to show his courage and ingenuity in destroying criminals and establishing justice. We have Harry at an airport foiling a hijack attempt; then we have Harry at a supermarket taking down some armed robbers; then Harry takes part in a shooting competition; we have Harry going after some mobsters, shooting, running, jumping on the hood of a car etc.; and in the end we have Clint indulging in some over the top motorbike stunts. The film does not have a linear, well-rounded storyline like the original, where we have the determined cop hunting down the psychotic criminal. Here, the narrative jumps all over the place. It has more locations, more characters and more violence than the first one. The film is directed by Ted Post, who, as i already mentioned, has previously directed Clint in some episodes of the Western series, Rawhide, as well as “Hang’em High”, which was also a sort of episodic Western. Maybe, the episodic Television series nature of this film is thanks to him being behind the camera, or perhaps it’s because it has more than one writer doing the scripting. Suffice to say that the film is not as good as the original, which was one of the best police thrillers ever made. But this one is bigger, expansive and much more entertaining. The film maybe episodic, but each episode is very very entertaining on its own and manages to bring together the most thrilling aspects of the original film in each episode. It’s the overall quality of this film that’s inferior to the original, as it really doesn’t add up to anything much more than an entertaining ‘package’, with an iconic star\character at the center holding it together, as opposed to a well crafted, fully-rounded film that the original was.

All this also brings the lead character (and film) much more closer to James Bond (and the ‘Bond’ films). I have already mentioned the James Bond influences on the character of Harry Callahan when i reviewed the original(Here). This time, the influences are much more stronger, and it’s felt right from the title sequence, where Harry’s Magnum .44 turns around and fires at the audience; it’s very similar to the gun-barrel introduction scene of Bond. Harry is more stylishly dressed and the dialogues are much more punchier than the original. Then the film is heavily set-piece driven, as i mentioned, and the action scenes in the film are wildly over the top in the mold of Bond films. The scene in which Harry impersonates a pilot and gets inside the cockpit of a plane to take down some hijackers looks very much out of a Bond film. It’s a scene that references the street-shootout sequence in the original, the one in which he delivers those iconic lines, but the intention there was to build Harry’s character, here it’s just a style statement. Also, having every woman who runs into Harry attempting to get him into bed seems to be influenced by Bond. Like a Bond sequel, Magnum Force is a stand alone film; only the character of Harry Callahan is carried forward from the original, and no mention or continuation is made of the events in the first film.

On the plus side, The action scenes in this film are really spectacular and are the best action scenes in the series. Clint, in co-ordination with his regular stunt-double and Stunt-coordinator, Buddy Van Horn, has come up with some really great stunts: the shootout in the store is very well choreographed, and so is the climax involving cars and bikes. Buddy Van Horn would go on to become a director in his own right, directing Clint Eastwood-vehicles like Any Which Way You Can (1980), The Dead Pool (1988), the final Dirty Harry film, and Pink Cadillac (1989).The film is written by the great John Milius, who had written such macho classics as Jeremiah Johnson and Apocalypse Now, and directed films like Dillinger, Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. Milius was a right-wing, gun-nut, and hence peppered the film with an endless series of shootouts using a wide variety of weapons. Apart from the .44 Magnum, we have 4″ barreled Colt Python revolvers used by the vigilante cops, as well as the Smith & Wesson Victory Models used by other criminals featured in the film. The conception of the Vigilante quartet was also keeping in with Milius’ politics; he wanted to show that there were much more extremist cops in the police department than Harry Callahan. Milius had done some uncredited rewrites for the original ‘Dirty Harry; and on this film, his screenplay was rewritten by an up and coming writer, named Michael Cimino. Yup!, the same Michael Cimino who would win Oscars for directing “The Deer Hunter(1978)” and then self-destruct spectacularly with “Heaven’s Gate”.

Milius hated the revisions made by Cimino, which turned the character away from its gritty, loner roots to make him a more softer character, and of all things, a lover. He also didn’t like the big climax; he hadn’t envisioned the film to be a spectacle on the lines of Bond, but much closer to the lean, mean original. He (and I’m sure many others) missed Don Siegel’s deft touch behind the camera. This is not the kind of film Siegel would have made. Rumor is that Clint didn’t want Siegel to helm the film because he was by then a superstar and wanted a director whom he could control; and hence brought in Ted Post, with whom he clashed frequently. Much of the film was rumored to be executed by Clint himself, in partnership with Buddy Van Horn. Post remained bitter about his bad experiences on the film and the breakdown of his friendship with Clint because of them. The audiences didn’t seem to mind all the chaos behind and in front of the screen; because when “Magnum Force” opened for Christmas,1973- exactly 2 years after the release of the first one, it surpassed the box office collections of the original; perhaps the only sequel to do so up to that time, with the exception of the Bond films. As was intended, the film managed to stay away from any of the controversies that plagued the original, and yet managed to deliver the violent thrills the original was popular for. The film only cost a little more than the original, and it didn’t have the original director at the helm. So all the credit of the success of this film went to Clint, who produced the film under his Malpaso banner, and was now the biggest superstar in the world.