Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A continuation of the stirring conservatism offered in Dirty Harry.
What did I get? Strange as it may seem, Magnum Force is a Dirty Harry movie designed with liberals in mind. Everywhere Harry looks, he is confronted with versions of himself, only more malign and unbalanced: his bile-spewing old buddy Charlie McCoy, a quartet of eager-beaver rookie cops with crackerjack profiency with their weapons and zealotry in their eyes — and that’s far from all. The movie is carefully engineered to establish the sensible limits that Harry does honor, to present his warrior’s code as something approaching mainstream. Harry represents common sense, but the emphasis here is more on the “sense.”
Magnum Force is several things at once. Most obviously, it’s a filmic essay on the dangerous thrill of the .44 Magnum handgun (the very sound of them); it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of extremism; it’s a rehabilitation of the Callahan character in political terms; and it also offers a deepening of Harry as a regular, that is nonpolitical, character. Above all it’s a crackerjack thriller that has more genuinely exciting scenes than three similar movies. Next to it, Dirty Harry seems rudimentary and crude.
Screenwriters Milius and Cimino, whose politics I probably despise, deserve a great deal of the credit for the sweep and brio of Magnum Force: it’s satisfyingly complex in a way that makes you wonder why more movies can’t pull off the trick. The throughline plot involves a series of horrifying serial killings, which description doesn’t quite do justice to the movie’s rich cast of malevolent types and smattering of seemingly unconnected subsidiary incidents. The movie’s always doing at least two things at once. The fakeouts are well deployed, and the resolution, while wildly implausible, is no less stirring for that.
After a strong first half, the movie kicks unmistakably into a different gear around the time that the murderer’s identity begins to become clear. (The turning point is the marksmanship contest, which on second viewing takes on unsuspected thematic meanings.) The movie gracefully transitions from a puzzle plot to straight thriller denouement, all of which is tremendously gripping (including a San Francisco chase sequence that can withstand comparison to Bullitt) while never losing the focus on what the movie is actually about. It’s difficult for me to suppress a twinge of contempt when the subject of Dirty Harry pops up, but even I can propose that film students would learn much from Magnum Force‘s unfussy, thematically resonant juggling act.
Callahan’s frequent quips, which gesture toward lawlessness while (it turns out) upholding its opposite, are sneaky brilliant in that they ground his actions in Dirty Harry in a different context. If the prior movie identified the district attorney’s office as the source of (liberal) rot, in Magnum Force the problems are squarely within the police force itself. Harry becomes the defender of all of society, not merely the cranks who feverishly call for bloodlust. As the recent Christopher Dorner case in Los Angeles demonstrates, paranoiac police overreaction and cop-on-cop violence aren’t going away anytime soon.
What here smacks of 1973? Swingers! Pimps!
IMDB score: 7.1
My score: 8
Director: Ted Post
Writers: John Milius and Michael Cimino
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Hal Holbrook, Mitch Ryan, David Soul, Tim Matheson, Kip Niven, Robert Urich, Felton Perry, Maurice Argent, Margaret Avery, Richard Devon, Tony Giorgio, Jack Kosslyn, Bob March, Bob McClurg, John Mitchum, Christine White, Adele Yoshioka
IMDB synopsis: San Francisco Police Inspector ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan and his new partner, Early Smith have been temporarily reassigned from Homicide to Stakeout Duty. Meanwhile, those of the city’s criminals who manage to avoid punishment by the courts are nevertheless being killed by unknown assassins. Callahan begins to investigate the murders despite the orders of his superior officer, Lieutenant Briggs. A man has to know his limitations…