Saturday, June 20, 2015

Magnum Force (1973)

Director: Ted Post                                        Writer: John Milius & Michael Cimino
Film Score: Lalo Schifrin                              Cinematography: Frank Stanley
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Hal Holbrook, David Soul and Tim Matheson

It says something about the power of this character that even though Magnum Force is the weakest of the Dirty Harry films, it still maintains a large measure of popularity some forty years after its initial release. The biggest problem with the story is that it is a reactionary one, seemingly written solely to counter critics that said the character was a vigilante acting outside of the law, when Harry Callahan was no such thing. Though to be fair to screenwriter John Milius, that was actually Clint Eastwood’s intent. Ironically, Charles Bronson’s Death Wish from the following year would fully embrace the vigilante idea and spawn a series of films that became just as popular as Clint Eastwood’s franchise--critics be damned. Director Ted Post was familiar to Eastwood from his Rawhide days, and had helmed Hang ‘Em High five years earlier, though the two had a falling out during filming because Eastwood had so much control over the production. Milius, who had done an uncredited rewrite on the first film, was brought in officially for this film, along with Michael Cimino who would direct Thunderbolt and Lightfoot as soon as principal photography was done on this film. And finally, Lalo Schifrin is on hand with variations on the iconic score that he composed for Dirty Harry.

The film begins in San Francisco with the acquittal of mob boss Richard Devon, bragging to the media. After his car pulls out from the courthouse he’s followed by a motorcycle cop who finally pulls them over just across one of the Bay Area bridges, and once traffic dies down he shoots all four men in the car and leaves. Later, homicide detective Clint Eastwood shows up with his new minority partner--something of a running gag in the series--Felton Perry, and sets up his conflict with authority immediately. Police lieutenant Hal Holbrook orders him back on the stakeout he was banished to, stating that he never had to use his gun when he was on the streets. It’s here that Eastwood delivers the first variation on the signature line in the film: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” The next scene is a little forced, however, as screenwriters John Milius and Michael Cimino have Eastwood and Perry go all the way out to the airport for a burger, just so that Eastwood can stumble into a hijacking in progress and insert himself into the crisis in order to take out the hijackers. Nevertheless, like the rest of the film, it may be contrived but it is effective.

Back at the station house Eastwood runs into Mitchell Ryan, a burned out motorcycle cop who is in the middle of his third divorce and vows never to retire and go down fighting. Down at the shooting range Eastwood runs into a group of rookies, David Soul, Tim Matheson, Robert Ulrich and Kip Niven, all of them ex-military and all excellent shots, a challenge to Eastwood’s domination of the department’s combat shooting competition. The next day, out on a lonely residential neighborhood in the hills, the rogue motorcycle cop sets up on the ground overlooking the swimming pool of another mobster and kills a dozen people at a pool party, including Suzanne Somers, with a sub-machine gun. That night Eastwood is back on his stakeout at a Cost Plus, and when things finally go down Perry is humiliated by the thieves in the process. It’s not until a third execution, Albert Popwell in his regular appearance, this time as a pimp after he killed Margaret Avery the night before, that Eastwood is brought into the investigation by the homicide captain, not Holbrook. Holbrook has the detectives looking into mob hit men even though Eastwood knows it’s someone impersonating a cop. Meanwhile the rookies keep finding more bodies and Ryan begins to lose his grip on reality.

Despite it’s flaws, it is an interesting film, especially in the way that it is forced to deal with the killer. Because the plot is so dependent upon deception, the story needs two things: a red herring and to keep the identity of the true killer hidden. But this only serves to undermine the red herring, which isn’t outright destructive to the film, but never quite allows for full suspension of disbelief by the audience. Things actually improve once the identity of the killer is revealed and the climax is the better for it. Still, with so many random events in the film surrounding the murders there seems to be little to hang onto as a viewer. And it didn’t help that it was the longest film in the franchise. The film was criticized in the press, not only by those writers who felt it was just as bad as the first one, but by those who thought the moralizing by Eastwood’s character was hypocritical. Nevertheless, the box-office grosses were even higher than the original film and Eastwood would go on to star in three more installments. Though Magnum Force lacks what the rest of the series has in terms of story, the style and the star are still enough to make it a satisfying film and an enduring Eastwood classic.

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