Judge Mike Rubino tries so hard to make Harry Callahan's day, but nothing is ever good enough!
"Go ahead, make my day."—Harry Callahan
Clint Eastwood became a Hollywood legend largely thanks to his role as "Dirty" Harry Callahan, the maverick cop who does whatever it takes to get his man even if it means ignoring the bureaucratic structure that every cop abides by. In other words, he's a '70s Jack Bauer.
In Sudden Impact, Eastwood not only returns to the character for a fourth installment but he also directs the film, steering the series in a new, morally murky direction.
Facts of the Case
Harry Callahan just can't catch a break. Everything he touches turns to trouble, and his blatant disregard for municipal policy is getting him in some hot water. When Harry isn't sitting in court watching his cases get thrown out for lack of sufficient evidence, he's inciting heart attacks in suspects by lying to them about evidence; he's a loose cannon who needs a vacation.
While taking some mandatory time off, Harry is called to investigate a string of serial murders in a small town outside of San Fran. He soon discovers that his black and white sense of judgement goes a little gray when the killer is a rape victim seeking revenge.
The Dirty Harry series was thought to be finished after The Enforcer; however, when a popularity poll revealed that audiences were yearning for the return of Callahan, Eastwood and Warner Bros. obliged. What audiences got was more of the same, and yet something totally different: the cynical, badass Dirty Harry is back, but in a darker, more complex story that blurs the previously-sharp line of justice.
When I finished watching this film the first time, I didn't really understand how the title factored into the movie. A couple people fell pretty hard, but aside from that I couldn't understand the meaning of "Sudden Impact." In retrospect, the title could be referring to the first act of the film, which finds our hero juggling four criminal cases, foiling a diner heist, and being forced to go on vacation. The pacing is quick and the result is jarring—and in some ways, it doesn't let up until the end credits roll. Yeah, the film itself is a sudden impact.
Unlike previous iterations in the series, Sudden Impact is dark and layered. In the beginning Harry is bouncing from case to case; a method that will eventually allow screenwriter Joseph Stinson to create a web of interlocking stories and set-pieces. While everything isn't logically connected together, punks and goons continue to chase down Harry for revenge throughout the movie. Adding another layer to the mix is the more serious parallel storyline of Jennifer Spencer (Sondra Locke, The Gauntlet), the gang rape victim who is seeking revenge on her attackers.
Tonally, the two parallel storylines don't match up so well. Dirty Harry's scenes are usually action-packed and rather humorous (like when he hijacks a retirement home bus to chase down a fleeing thief), while Jennifer's scenes are dark, cold, and a little disturbing. One conjures up the gung-ho nature of the previous films and the other forges ahead, breaking new ground in terms of moral challenges and dramatic imagery. It's a strange juxtaposition that doesn't alternate as seamlessly as it should. What does work is the excellent and climactic ending on the boardwalk, which is not only well-shot but features a resolution that raises plenty of ethical questions for our hero.
Sudden Impact benefits greatly from the awesome talent surrounding it. The script by Stinson is sharp and witty, with some fantastic one-liners for Harry (including AFI's #6 one-liner of all time…see The Charge). The film is accompanied by a diverse, and pretty funky, score by Lalo Schifrin, who is responsible for the Mission: Impossible theme amongst a million other things. Both aspects of the film are managed well by the very capable hands of director Clint Eastwood.
Eastwood's directorial skills are sharp here (Sudden Impact being the eleventh film he directed), and his treatment of the material raises it out of the cop-genre doldrums and into film school-worthy material. He worked very closely with cinematographer Bruce Surtees, who floods the film with shadows; Eastwood effectively utilizes shadow patterns to emphasize confusion and mystery throughout the movie, especially during the showdown at the merry-go-round. The film can be extremely tense (like during the diner hold-up) and also pretty funny (like any scene involving Harry and his dog Meathead), but is always framed and shot with thoughtfulness not often found in these sorts of movies.
Sudden Impact may have been one of the more successful entries into the franchise in terms of box office revenues, but the complex subject matter of a serial killer being a rape victim (and the implicit dilemma of whether she deserves to dole out vigilante justice) may be off-putting for fans of the previous clean-cut Dirty Harry films. But Clint Eastwood returned to successfully grow the character, and does so with the same angry charm he's always had.
This new edition of the film is part of Warner Bros.'s re-release of the entire Dirty Harry Collection. This new "deluxe" release features a great picture and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track (in a pretty impressive variety of languages). The colors look great, and the black levels never looked better, which is important for a dark film like this. There are two very worthy special features in the package: a commentary track by Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel and a documentary called "The Evolution of Clint Eastwood."
The commentary track with Schickel is very informative and fun to listen to. Most of the time he's able to give great insight into Eastwood as a person, as well as some tidbits about the series and the reoccurring characters in the film. Then he sometimes just sits back and laughs at all of the improbable danger that manages to find its way into Harry's lap. The documentary about Eastwood is also very informative, chronicling Eastwood's early rise in Hollywood and his move into directing. It has interviews with Hollywood actors, like Michael Madsen, and producers, like John Milius, and features an overall strong production value. Trailers for all of the Dirty Harry films also show up on the disc.
This release comes in a cool translucent slip case that features a die-cut bullet-through-glass effect. It's a great package that really captures the attitude of the movie.
Sudden Impact is certainly one of the stronger films in the Dirty Harry series, managing to take the character into a new direction while maintaining the attitude that everyone loved from the previous entries. The dual plotlines of Dirty Harry's vacation and the revenge of a rape victim may not play as strongly next to one another, but Clint does a good job of tying them together at the end.
This re-release of the film, in its new "deluxe" form, is not only warranted but welcomed. It has a couple hefty special features and a great package. Get the set or get it alone, Sudden Impact is worth it.
GUILTY of making my day.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary Track by Richard Schickel
Review content copyright © 2008 Michael Rubino; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.