Dirty Harry put a bullet in the heart of the flower-power generation. While the sixties were the heyday of free love, the seventies saw an upsurge in violent crime that left audiences hungry for a hero ready to take matters into his own hands. That hero was police inspector Harry Callahan, headquartered (oddly) in the liberal mecca of San Francisco and captured magically by Clint Eastwood. Released in 1971, Dirty Harry has proved hugely influential, with a progeny of lawless lawmen including Sylvester Stallone in Cobra, Steven Seagal in Out for Justice, and Charles Bronson in Death Wish. But few of these upstarts can challenge the original and its four sequels. Which Dirty Harry spectacular hits the bull’s-eye?
1. Dirty Harry (1971)
Apoplectic commanders threatening suspension. Hostages writhing in the grip of insane criminals. Tense standoffs resolved with witty one-liners and blasts from the barrel of a .44 Magnum. The original Dirty Harry set the pattern for scores of copycats, but its gritty atmosphere and airtight pacing make it a classic on its own terms. While Eastwood’s facial tics and flawless line delivery are half the film’s success, credit also goes to the movie’s psychotic hippie villain, Scorpio, played with manic relish by Andrew Robinson. Indeed, no matter what your views on due process, by the movie’s end you’ll be aching for Harry to ask him one last question: “Do you feel lucky?”
2. The Enforcer (1976)
Dirty Harry is a prototype for machismo, and in the third film he faces his ultimate nightmare: a female partner. Even worse — to Harry’s endless grimacing and gnashing of teeth — one who was promoted strictly to meet department quotas. And, sure, while Harry’s spends some time acting all alpha male, in the end he gets to like Kate Moore (Tyne Daly). Just don’t expect any romance: Harry’s first love has, is, and will always be shooting scumbags full of holes. And when a lefty group kidnaps the mayor, Harry has plenty of opportunities to teach Moore his views on due process.
3. The Dead Pool (1989)
The fifth — and so far the last — Dirty Harry movie makes an uncommonly good showing for a latecomer. The Dead Pool has a more idiosyncratic plot than its companions in the series, revolving around a celebrity hit list that has Harry’s name on it, and Eastwood is spot-on in depicting Harry as a cop who’s a little older and a bit wiser but not ready for the geriatric ward. Like the later James Bond films, the movie also has fun playing on our expectations — and sometimes exceeding them. That includes, in one instance, Harry trading his trademark .44 Magnum for a harpoon. (Yes, a harpoon.) And fans of Guns N’ Roses will note the brief, blitzed appearances by Slash and Axl. It’s no masterpiece of modern film, but The Dead Pool is truly fun.
4. Sudden Impact (1983)
Dirty Harry’s typical police procedural gets crossed with a rape-revenge movie in this delightfully seedy entry. When two sisters are violently raped, leaving one comatose, the surviving sibling decides to take matters into her own hands. The result: more than a few scenes with dudes being shot in the groin. As she hunts down her assailants, Harry — no stranger to acting judge, jury, and executioner — is put in the odd position of stopping her. Meanwhile, the opening sequence is perhaps the best set piece in the whole series: a beautiful orchestrated confrontation with armed robbers that concludes with the mother of all catchphrases: “Go ahead — make my day.”
5. Magnum Force (1973)
The vertiginous hills and wild curves of San Francisco’s streets make it a perfect choice for chase scenes. No surprise that the Dirty Harry movies have some great ones. While The Enforcer‘s rooftop foot chase — defying San Francisco’s geography — is among the saga’s finest moments, another is Magnum Force‘s car-versus-motorcycle destruction derby that concludes the film. Action aside, the flick’s premise is extraordinarily intriguing: Harry going against a gang of rogue cops. But as the title suggests, the crooked cops make one crucial mistake: using standard-issue .357 Magnums. Harry, as you know, uses something a bit bigger.
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