Warner Bros. // 1973 // 124 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // November 29th, 2001
A man's got to know his limitations.
A well-measured blend of suspense and action, the synergy of the script and acting make Magnum Force a contender for the strongest entry in the "Dirty Harry" series of films and a classic film in its own right. Brought to disc in fine technical form by Warner Brothers, the light coating of extra content will leave a fan of the series hungry for more.
Someone is trying to put the courts of San Francisco out of business. Starting with brutal mob boss Carmine Ricca (Richard Devon) and his cohorts, a nameless motorcycle policeman is executing the criminal class, even down to a pimp who killed one of his wayward prostitutes. An annoyed Lt. Briggs (Hal Holbrook) keeps Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) off the case, but soon the steady body count forces his hand, and "Dirty Harry" is let loose with his bemused and quietly fearful partner Early Smith (Felton Perry).
At first, Callahan thinks that unhinged, burnt-out motorcycle cop and friend Charlie McCoy (Mitch Ryan) is the suspect. However, when the unknown assassin kills Charlie, another mobster and two drug-addled innocents, Harry realizes that he faces an enemy that goes far deeper and is far more dangerous than he had imagined. As Callahan begins to put the pieces together, so do his opponents, who recognize the threat to their death squad activities. Harry Callahan is faced with determined opponents as he fights his desperate battle to survive and maintain the system of justice.
In the sure hands of writer John Milius (Apocalypse Now, Conan the Barbarian, Red Dawn) and director Ted Post (Hang 'Em High, Beneath the Planet of the Apes), Magnum Force builds upon the solid foundation of Dirty Harry to create a bleak yet enthralling tale of vigilante justice. This second film in the "Dirty Harry" genre achieves that success by playing the audience against its own preconceptions. We expect Inspector Harry Callahan to side with his vigilante brethren, knowing that our hero considers the court system to be deeply flawed and is quite capable of throwing rules out the window when true justice is required. So, when we find that Callahan becomes the lone crusader for the rule of law, however flawed, over the rule of vigilante justice, the ironic reversal is exquisite.
Upon noticing that both director Ted Post and star Clint Eastwood dealt with the vigilante conundrum several years previously in Hang 'Em High, one might suspect intentional, though subtle, social commentary. In each case, organized retribution against perceived evil goes disastrously wrong and our reluctant hero, at times contemptuous of the court system, faces personal loss and great peril as he forgoes the siren song of vigilante justice for a justice that is less certain but morally preferable to the unspeakable crime of an innocent's murder. One might conclude that the pair finds vigilante justice completely reprehensible, except for the moral ambiguity that resulted when Eastwood took a triple-threat director/producer/actor crack at the subject in Sudden Impact. Perhaps Inspector Callahan himself best summarizes the overall message in Magnum Force: "Nothing wrong with shooting, as long as the right people get shot."
Aside from Clint Eastwood (Space Cowboys, Escape from Alcatraz, The Eiger Sanction), who is in his prime Dirty Harry years, the acting chores in Magnum Force fall largely on the capable shoulders of Hal Holbrook (Men of Honor, The Firm, Capricorn One) and Felton Perry (Dumb and Dumber, Robocop). Holbrook plays his cards close to the vest, showing only enough sardonic wit and annoyance to keep the audience guessing. Perry acquits himself well as the loyal partner, a capable professional with a sense of humor. Mitch Ryan (Lethal Weapon, Judge Dredd) adds a quality touch of pathos as Charlie McCoy, the burnt-out motorcycle cop and Callahan friend. The rest of the roles aren't fleshed out enough for real acting muscles, but you might be surprised by the presence of David Soul (Starsky and Hutch), Tim Matheson (Fletch, Animal House), and Robert Urich (too many TV movies and shows to count!). On an equally pleasing note, blink and you may miss a less than clothed Suzanne Somers getting killed in the poolside massacre.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer is about as good as you would expect for a nearly 30-year-old film. Some of the negatives, like a degree of film grain, are inherent to the source material. While most of the film has a soft look, some of the softness is very likely from the source and not due to the transfer. Looking carefully at the by-play between Callahan and Lt. Briggs at the scene of the Ricca massacre, Callahan's crisp shots stand out so strongly by comparison against Briggs' soft shots that the scene must have been edited together with shots from cameras with different cameras, film stock and/or focus. Digital edge enhancement pulses in here and there, colors are reasonably saturated, and blacks are solid. Worthy of commendation is the condition of this new digital transfer. This is a very clean print, clear of dirt and common film defects.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is pretty darned nifty for a remix of an older film. Clear center channel dialogue and action, smooth panning across the channels and some precise, appropriate rear channel effects make for a quality presentation. Vehicle movement and gunfights make excellent use of the rear surrounds and the enveloping airplane noise atmosphere during the hijacking scene is just great. The sound is not as full-bodied as a modern film, but for one of its age, this is top class sound.
The limited extra content on Magnum Force leaves me somewhat torn. On the one hand, I am thankful that Warner Brothers released (and in the case of Dirty Harry, re-released) all of the "Dirty Harry" films in a box set and did so with superb video and audio quality. On the other hand, the only film with substantive content on the film series is Dirty Harry itself, leaving Magnum Force and The Enforcer with their respective original promotional featurette and not too much else, and then Sudden Impact and The Dead Pool without even the featurette.
The lack of in-depth content is disheartening to the millions of Dirty Harry and Clint Eastwood fans, who would eat up whatever production details that any of the participants would care to give. A commentary track of some kind and retrospective featurettes for each film, or at the very least a full-blown special edition treatment for Dirty Harry (can you say triple-dip, boys & girls?) is not too much to ask for, is it Warner Brothers? Heck, I'm surprised they did not do the "buy the box set, get the bonus disc" ploy.
On Magnum Force, "Hero Cop: Yesterday and Today" is the eight minute original promotional featurette. Partly a very brief historical review, touching upon the original G-men, hard-boiled detectives and old-time criminals, as well as the phenomena of lynching, and partly behind the scenes promotional footage, it whet my appetite for more details on the making of Magnum Force. Sadly, there are none, unless you count a few tidbits on the locations used in the film and a dab of production notes. Bringing up the rear of the extra content is the usual theatrical trailer. Note to Warner Brothers: If you bother to include a "Cast & Crew" section, how about a bio/filmography for each person and not just have a useless list of names?
A film with Dirty Harry and Clint Eastwood at their best, Magnum Force is a taut, intelligent drama that deserves universal consideration for rental at a minimum. Available for purchase individually ($20 list) or as part of the Dirty Harry Collection ($80 list for all five films), I heartily recommend Magnum Force for purchase on the strength of the film and the technical presentation, despite the disappointing extra content.
So, you want to know what my verdict is? To tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I've forgotten myself. Let me go watch Magnum Force again, and again, and again...Case dismissed!
Review content copyright © 2001 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 1973
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "The Hero Cop: Yesterday and Today" Featurette
* Production Notes
* Theatrical Trailer
* Clint Eastwood.net