When it comes to cinematic heroes who just wantonly kills bad guys with little regard for the innocent passersby, currently we’re all on board with Deadpool from the movie Deadpool. And yes, he’s great, but for nearly two decades of cinematic history, we had the Right-Wing nutso with a badge known as Dirty Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood. In his 1971 debut, the angry, racist, sexist San Francisco police inspector lamented not being legally allowed to just kill bad guys who deserved it, due process be damned. For some insane reason, this character was allowed to be a cop and by 1988, he had his final outing. It’s a little movie called The Dead Pool.
All of the Dirty Harry movies have their gimmick; the original was all about a sniper who uses the system against itself, causing our “hero” to toss his badge in the bay after shooting the bad guy. In 1973’s Magnum Force, though, he’s back on the job hunting a conspiracy of cops who kill innocent people (see? Harry does the good thing in this one!). In 1976’s The Enforcer, Callahan gets his new partner killed but gets to blow up the bad guy with a rocket launcher. After a break, Dirty Harry returned in 1983’s Sudden Impact, which Eastwood himself directed, and it gave the world the phrase “Make my day.” Finally, by 1988, what more did Dirty Harry have to do? Chase a serial killer who knocked off Jim Carrey, it turns out.
As the story begins, Harry’s fame has finally caught up to him. Surprising, given how he’s murdered people with near impunity for 17 years, that he’d have angered people enough to want to get revenge. His testimony puts a mob boss behind bars and gets himself on the cover of San Francisco magazines, which of course puts him in the crosshairs for anybody who might want to off the .44 Magnum’s owner. Harry is also told he has a new partner, an Asian American martial arts expert, Al Quan (Evan Kim), whom Harry derides and informs that most of his partners end up dead. WHY DO PEOPLE STILL WANT TO WORK WITH HIM?!
Meanwhile, a horror film director named Peter Swan (a young Liam Neeson) is directing a weird-ass music video for the movie with a song performed by troubled rocker Johnny Squares (Carrey). This has always made me laugh, because the song in question is Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” off of their monster hit debut album Appetite for Destruction. That was a number 1 album, and yet Carrey just lip syncs the song as though it was a Johnny Squares original. Didn’t people at the time go “Uhh, hey, wait a minute, isn’t this Guns N’ Roses?” Anyway, as not convincing as Carrey is as a rock star (he looks like he’s doing a parody sketch), he’s not around long and gets bumped off by being forcibly overdosed.
Callahan and Quan are called in to investigate and they don’t get much help from Swan, who thinks Squares was a burn out who ruined his shoot. But soon after, Swan’s producer is gunned down in a Chinese restaurant that Callahan and Quan just happen to witness firsthand. This is very convenient, and Harry is then able to a) kill a couple of the stick-up men, and 2) find a list of names in the producer’s pocket, of whom Johnny Squares and Harry himself are listed. It turns out, Swan and the producer were part of a “dead pool,” or a group that gambles on celebrity deaths, either by natural causes, old age, or dangerous work. Soon after, a film critic on the list is also killed in her home, by someone claiming to be Swan.
While all this is going on, a TV reporter (Patricia Clarkson) wants to do an in-depth story on Callahan. Naturally he wants nothing to do with it, but soon they start spending time together and — you guessed it — become romantically involved. There’s just something about a grouchy misogynist with an itchy trigger finger that women in the ’80s couldn’t get enough of. He even praises her for not giving in to sensationalist journalism when a suspect tries to commit suicide on TV by lighting himself on fire. Harry is able to save him, and it never made the news. But, naturally, she’s in danger once the real culprit makes his presence known, because it wouldn’t be a movie if she weren’t.
I don’t think this movie is all that great, to be honest, but it does have a pretty great sequence. The real baddie turns out to be Harlan Rook (David Hunt), a deranged fan of Swan’s who believes the horror director has stolen ideas and movie scripts from him and wants revenge. Swan has obtained a restraining order, but that didn’t stop the psychopath. He kills the next person on the dead pool list – a controversial talk show host – by fitting a C4 explosive onto a radio-controlled toy car and driving it under the victim’s car as he’s backing out. BA-BOOM, as they say. Callahan finds a tire from the RC car at the crime scene but doesn’t think much of it until he sees another RC car following him down the winding San Francisco streets. So we get a car chase between a full-sized car and a toy, but because streets in San Francisco are particularly crowded and narrow, he’s not able to just easily drive away like you’d think. It’s surprisingly tense.
The Dead Pool is probably the weakest entry in the Dirty Harry series, and it seems especially backwards in its thinking by today’s standards. Even so, both Siskel and Ebert gave the movie a positive review at the time, but it still failed to make much more than its budget back. It has the dubious honor of being released two days prior to the release of a little movie you may have heard of called Die Hard. It’s got some pretty interesting story ideas, and it’s very funny to see Neeson and Carrey in their respective roles, but Callahan’s throwback attitude didn’t age very well and just feels a bit like, if you forgive the pun, overkill. I mean, Harry kills the bad guy with a harpoon cannon at maybe only 10 paces. Only the real Deadpool would think that was warranted.
Images: Warner Bros