Judge Victor Valdivia is a member of a fearsome vigilante squad. Their goal is to go after people who use expressions like "Sucks to be you."
Our reviews of Dirty Harry Ultimate Collector's Edition (Blu-Ray) (published June 19th, 2008) and Magnum Force (published November 29th, 2001) are also available.
"It's not too hard to understand how this could happen, nowadays, the way things are."—Harry Callahan
1971's Dirty Harry became a sensation, a controversial hit that launched passionate debates about its view of police brutality. Magnum Force, its 1973 sequel, not only acknowledges those arguments, it confronts them head-on. The result is one of the best films of the early '70s, one that provides a thoughtful critique of its era but also carries an ever greater resonance today.
Facts of the Case
Not long after the events seen in Dirty Harry, Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood, Two Mules for Sister Sara) is paired with a new partner, Early (Felton Perry, Robocop). The two are assigned a case involving a series of brutal murders around San Francisco. The twist is that the victims are all big-shot gangsters, pimps, and killers who have escaped justice because of legal technicalities. As Harry and Early clash with their commander, the strict Lt. Briggs (Hal Holbrook, All the President's Men), they become intrigued by a new gang of sharpshooting motorcycle cops named Davis (David Soul, Starsky & Hutch), Sweet (Tim Matheson, National Lampoon's Animal House), Astrachan (Kip Niven, Airport 1975), and Grimes (Robert Urich, Spenser: for Hire). Harry's problems grow when one of his best friends on the force, a motorcycle cop named McCoy (Mitchell Ryan, High Plains Drifter), becomes increasingly unhinged and Harry's and Early's investigation may make them the next targets.
Magnum Force is a rarity: a sequel that neither rehashes nor dishonors its predecessor. Dirty Harry was hugely controversial, hailed by some as a rebuke to '70s moral relativism and reviled by others (most famously Pauline Kael) as "fascist," Magnum Force is deliberately constructed as a response to both reactions. In this film, Harry acknowledges the complexity of upholding the law, and the true guise of fascism is viewed through the shots of motorcycle cops in boots, black leather uniforms, and mirrored sunglasses, murdering people with impunity.
The ambiguity about vigilantism in Magnum Force (an ambiguity unheard of in any other film made during the '70s, especially given that few films of this era even addressed the topic at all) came from the film's three creative principals. Eastwood, of course, was an outspoken Republican who campaigned for the counter-culture's bête noire, Richard Nixon. Co-screenwriter John Milius (Conan the Barbarian) may have palled around with the legendary "movie brats" of the early '70s, such as Coppola, Spielberg, and Scorsese, but he took pride in being the group's only gun-crazy conservative. The other screenwriter, Michael Cimino, went on to earn multiple Academy Awards for writing and directing The Deer Hunter, a Vietnam film that so outraged the anti-war left that Jane Fonda called it "racist." Though Hollywood had, at this time, given free rein to counter-culture directors like Dennis Hopper and Robert Altman, all three men understood that there was a sizable audience for a film that addressed the growing backlash against '60s liberalism.
In fact, Magnum Force isn't a knee-jerk argument for either side of the issue of vigilantism. What it does do is make explicit the sensation of a breakdown of law and order that had only been hinted at in Dirty Harry. The opening scene depicts a sleazy gangster walking out of court a free man after a legal technicality prevents him from being tried for murdering a beloved labor activist. Outside he is greeted by mobs of picketers, both pro and con, who clash violently as police officers stand around helpless. There's no clearer depiction of a city (significantly enough, San Francisco, birthplace of the counter-culture) that is spinning into a morass of lawlessness. As the film progresses, it becomes obvious quickly that there's a sizable element of society that's demanding a quick solution to the problem of crime. It also becomes obvious that there are people, perhaps even cops themselves, who are willing to provide that solution with a minimum of restrictions.
It's important that the investigation of the vigilante murders falls onto Harry himself. Harry has already been established as a cop who is more than willing to cut a few corners and break a few rules in order to get justice done. But just how far is he willing to go? Is there a line even he won't cross? And what will he do when he is forced to confront those who share his ideals but go much farther than he ever has before? As the investigation progresses and leads Harry and Early to suspect a rogue cop, Harry is forced to define once and for all how committed he really is to the rules of law enforcement, even if he sees how they can drive a good man like McCoy into derangement and can be used to further the career of a pencil-pushing weasel like Briggs. The audience is meant to share Harry's ambivalence about the vigilantes, and to see how seductive they are and what price must be paid to allow them. The choice between a society that's free and one that's safe is a complex dilemma, and the film doesn't shy away from addressing all its implications, even including an ending that underscores that it's irresolvable. It's why the line of dialogue quoted above, spoken mournfully by Harry to Early, is the most crucial in the film. The ending may solve the immediate crisis, but the causes for the crisis haven't even been confronted, let alone worked out. This ambivalence has given Magnum Force a far greater resonance with the present than many of the more dated films of its era.
The lion's share of the credit for Magnum Force's success must go to Eastwood, Milius, and Cimino. Eastwood, of course carries the film with a performance that's laconic without being wooden and that shows more depth than before, especially when confronted with the true nature of the vigilante threat. Milius and Cimino's script is exceptional, taking an interesting idea and exploring it fully. The film works as a procedural but also fleshes out the characters thoroughly and even works in details, such as a few missed shots during a shooting contest, that pay off brilliantly later. Both men also have a flair for dialogue that ranges from clever to realistic. If Ted Post's direction is frequently workmanlike, the script and Eastwood are strong enough to carry the film over from competent to superb. Coupled with a stellar supporting cast and some gritty violence, Magnum Force has enough to recommend it as one of the more underrated films of the early '70s.
Magnum Force was released on DVD previously in 2000, in an edition that was digitally remixed and remastered. This edition reuses that same sound mix, but the transfer has been cleaned up a bit more. The film looks excellent, with little fading or dirt, and the newer transfer does clean up a bit more of the grain and noise evident in the previous one. A few scenes are a touch too dark, but presumably that's how they were shot originally. It's debatable, however, whether the improvements are significant enough to warrant a double dip. The sound mix is loud on occasion, but generally, the bulk of the action is up front.
This new Deluxe Edition adds a couple more extras to the 2000 edition, but both are so frustrating that it's a toss-up as to whether or not fans should upgrade. The first is an audio commentary by Milius that's a big disappointment. Milius is usually a witty raconteur, and he does have some insights into the writing of the film (and his knowledge of guns easily rivals that of anyone this side of Ted Nugent), but here he doesn't really talk much. There are huge gaps between his comments and too often he's merely reacting to what's happening onscreen. The second is the featurette "A Moral Right: The Politics of Dirty Harry" (24:11). In addition to interviews with Eastwood, Holbrook, and Milius, it also brings in a wide assortment of actors, directors, screenwriters, and critics to discuss the political and cultural ramifications of Dirty Harry. This could be interesting, but winds up being a mishmash of film clips and random statements, most of which center on the reaction that followed the release of Dirty Harry. Magnum Force itself is only mentioned a few times in the last five minutes or so. Don't expect to hear a lot about how this film was made or how it was received. Ported over from the previous release is "The Hero Cop: Yesterday & Today" (8:01), a brief featurette filmed back in 1973 that compares depictions of cops in previous films to Harry. It does have some snippets of behind-the-scenes footage, which makes it worth a look. Also included is a trailer gallery that has all five theatrical trailers from all the Dirty Harry films.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Magnum Force isn't completely the taut thriller it could be. The scene where Harry takes charge of a hijacking at the airport and singlehandedly dispatches two miscreants is long and superfluous. It's presumably there to show the audience just how aggressive Harry is in solving problems, but it's unlikely that anyone, especially in 1973, needs a reminder of Harry's character. The subplot involving the stakeout at a supermarket works much better, and also helps to flesh out the relationship between Harry and Early. Also, in this post-9/11 era, the hijacking scene comes off as by far the most painfully dated in the film.
If Magnum Force isn't quite the equal of Dirty Harry, it's still a worthy and entertaining successor. The Dirty Harry series would eventually deteriorate into self-parody, but here it hits its stride with a well-written script and solid performances. Fans who own the earlier DVD release may want to preview the new extras and transfer before deciding to buy, but anyone else who is looking for a gripping police thriller should definitely pick this one up. It's not just one of the best entries in the series, but a great film in its own right.
Don't hunt it down and kill it, because Magnum Force is most assuredly not guilty. The disappointing new extras, however, escape summary execution by a hair.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary
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