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This week marks the 25th anniversary of “The Dead Pool,” which, perhaps no one realized at the time, was the final “Dirty Harry” movie. The movie was released on July 13, 1988, shortly after Eastwood turned 58, and while the actor has continued to play cops and gunslingers and action heroes, he tossed away Inspector Harry Callahan’s badge for good.
“Dead Pool” isn’t a great movie (though it did give early career boosts to Patricia Clarkson, Liam Neeson, and Jim Carrey), but it matters because it marked the end of an era — and perhaps the beginning of another. It marked a farewell to the most influential cop drama series in modern film history, and it paved the way for our current wave of similar shoot-’em-up heroes, loose-cannon cops who are even more dangerous and misanthropic than the criminals they collar.
With 1971’s original “Dirty Harry,” Eastwood helped bury the Western genre that had made him famous and replace it with the police drama. Instead of the sheriff or the marshal, it was the modern-day lawman who became the dispenser of rough frontier justice. The contemporary urban crime drama became the moral arena where questions of right vs. wrong, justice vs. injustice, and civilization vs. anarchy played out.
Dirty Harry was controversial at first, a wish-fulfillment answer to the Nixonian silent majority who felt that crime had gotten out of hand, thanks to liberals who supposedly placed too much value on the suspect’s legal rights and too little on the victim’s. He seemed to be a creature of right-wing id, responding to the excesses of the ’60s (as embodied by villain Scorpio) in a violent, inappropriate, but thoroughly cathartic way.
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Critic Pauline Kael called the movie “fascist,” though “Nietzschean” would have been a better adjective. Sure, Harry’s exercising power on behalf of the state, but he’s also a lone vigilante with an idiosyncratic moral code based not on law or strength, just his own gut instinct. That becomes clear in the sequels, like “Magnum Force,” where he wipes out a squad of police vigilantes who go even further than he does in their willingness to hunt down and kill those criminals who might otherwise remain free on technicalities. Later still, in “Sudden Impact,” he looks the other way at Sondra Locke’s vigilantism as she stalks and blows away the thugs who gang-raped her and her sister. Why is vigilantism okay for some, not for others? Harry doesn’t articulate a reason, except perhaps in his “Magnum Force” catchphrase: “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
Harry is neither a doctrinaire conservative nor a liberal; he simply doesn’t get along with anyone, not with suspects, not with his bosses, and not with his partners. About the only way to gain Harry’s respect is to be grievously wounded in the line of duty, something that happens far too often to his partners. One such partner was played by Tyne Daly in “The Enforcer,” nearly a decade before she played pioneering policewoman Mary Beth Lacey on TV’s “Cagney & Lacey.” Harry’s grudging respect for her, along with his recognition of a kindred spirit in Locke and his courtship of pushy reporter Clarkson in “The Dead Pool,” could be counted as a crude kind of feminism.
If Harry has no politics other than a blunt kind of chivalry, what drives him to court danger and violence? Maybe it’s fun to him. The chase sequence in “The Dead Pool” involving a remote-controlled toy car is pretty absurd, a mockery of pretty much every cop movie car chase since “Bullitt” 20 years earlier, but Eastwood has called it one of the scenes he’s most enjoyed shooting. In the diner scene in “Sudden Impact,” when Harry famously tells a perp, “Go ahead, make my day,” audiences tend to read the line as world-weary sarcasm from a guy for whom blowing away bad guys is just another day at the office. But what if he means it, like shooting this thug is something Harry might actually relish?
In this way, “Dirty Harry” tutored viewers to appreciate action for its own sake. In such movies, Eastwood seemed to suggest, you shouldn’t think too much about all the gunplay, you should just learn to enjoy it. (It’s not clear whether Eastwood actually holds such a view; four years after “The Dead Pool,” his Western “Unforgiven” earned a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture, for presenting its audience with cathartic violence even while chastising them for enjoying it or ignoring the moral component of said violence.)
Just how influential was Eastwood’s run as Dirty Harry? Well, ask yourself this: When was the last time you saw a movie about a cop who was happy and well-adjusted, got along well with his or her superiors and his or her partner, didn’t bend the rules, and caught the villain by operating strictly by the book? Okay, there was Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson in “Fargo” back in 1996, but other than that over the last 42 years? Not a one.
In recent years, every movie cop protagonist seems to be a Callahan-style loose cannon. There’s Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs in the “Lethal Weapon” franchise (launched a year before “Dead Pool” closed the “Dirty Harry” series). There’s Eddie Murphy’s Axel Foley in the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies. There’s Nick Nolte’s grouchy maverick in “48 Hrs.” There’s Sylvester Stallone in “Cobra” (and, more extreme, in “Judge Dredd”). There’s Chris Tucker in the “Rush Hour” films, Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in the “Bad Boys” movies, and now we even have Melissa McCarthy in “The Heat.”
Then there’s Bruce Willis’s John McClane in “Die Hard,” which opened the same weekend as “The Dead Pool,” as if picking up the torch Dirty Harry laid down. In five movies over the past quarter century, Willis’s McClane has proved to be at once more realistic and more cartoonish than Harry. On the one hand, he has a backstory to explain his psychological baggage (his dedication to the job has, over time, ruined his marriage and family life and driven him to the bottle). On the other, he has both a superhuman resourcefulness and a superhuman ability to take a beating. In a way, his enemies have made him bigger than Harry; rather than diabolical serial killers or rogue cops, whose cleverness amounts to little more than gaming the system, McClane’s adversaries are masterminds of crime and mayhem who evoke modern fears of terrorism and elevate McClane’s heroics to a global scale.
Audiences demand bigger stakes now, and bigger action payoffs. But they still look to the cop with that big .44 Magnum as a model for how to achieve that blowing-away-the-bad-guy catharsis.