Tuesday 25 January 2011

Movie Review: Magnum Force (1973)

Harry Callahan's second outing is the most ambitious of the original trilogy. Two years after Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood reprises the role of the grizzled San Francisco Inspector, and in Magnum Force he comes face to face with a more extreme version of himself: a police death squad cleaning up the streets when the justice system fails.

When a mob boss is acquitted on a technicality, a motorcycle cop catches up with the mobster's limousine and kills him and his entire entourage. Callahan wants to investigate the case but is soon butting heads with his superior, Lieutenant Briggs (Hal Holbrook), who is proud never to have used his gun, and who thinks that Harry is a relic.

The extra-judicial killings continue: another mobster and all his outdoor pool guests are wiped out by a machine-gun wielding cop; a vicious pimp is pulled over by an officer and gunned down; and another crime boss is eliminated in his penthouse suite. With Briggs and his men floundering, Callahan and his partner (Felton Perry) begin to suspect a tight-knit group of new young police rookies, including Officers Davis (David Soul), Sweet (Tim Matheson), and Grimes (Robert Urich), of running a death squad. Ballistic tests confirm his suspicions, and soon Callahan is faced with the choice of joining the killers or standing in their way -- and becoming one of their victims.

Magnum Force combines prolonged scenes of intense action with welcome interludes to humanize Harry. We see him having dinner with the estranged wife of a fellow officer; and he enjoys a tryst with a neighbour from his apartment building. As Harry is portrayed in a more sympathetic light, the film poses the tricky question: is the death squad not an extension of Harry's own preferred methods? Magnum Force tries to make a distinction between Callahan pushing the limits from within the system as being better than the rogue cops operating completely outside the system, but screenwriters John Milius and Michael Cimino do not seem too convinced by their own arguments.

Ted Post directs with confident panache, frequently filling the screen with an assortment of roaring oversized American cars that were enjoying their peak in 1973. Eastwood is supported by a worthwhile cast: Holbrook bring some weight to Lieutenant Briggs, while the young cops David Soul (Starsky and Hutch), Robert Urich (Vegas), and Tim Matheson (Animal House) all went on have reasonably prominent careers.

The second outing was never going to retain the freshness of the original, so Magnum Force did the next best thing: it added depth to the character, and presented him with a suitable moral dilemma to grapple with and lots of bad guys to blow away with that cannon of a handgun.

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