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Review: Magnum Force (1973)

Magnum Force (1973)

Directed by: Ted Post

Premise: A sequel to 1971’s Dirty Harry. When the courts fail to convict San Francisco’s high profile criminals, a cabal of police officers cleans up the streets by turning to vigilantism. Detective “Dirty Harry” Callahan (Clint Eastwood) investigates.

What Works: When the original Dirty Harry was released in 1971 it was an enormous success but it was also criticized for valorizing police brutality. Those criticisms weren’t without merit. In the first film, “Dirty Harry” Callahan is often sadistic and psychotic and although he’s fighting for justice, the character disregards law and order whenever it suits him. Dirty Harry was followed two years later by Magnum Force and this film puts an interesting spin on the criticisms of the first picture. In Magnum Force a group of rookie cops decide to unilaterally clean up the streets and they even express admiration for Dirty Harry’s unconventional methods. The movie literalizes the accusations of fascism made against the original film and it is able to work them out intelligently. The filmmakers create a distinction between the renegade cops, who have abandoned the legal system, and Dirty Harry, who resorts to violence only when the system fails. It’s a revision of the character from the first film and a smart response to its criticisms. Magnum Force is especially interesting viewing forty years after its original release, as subsequent law enforcement action movies like Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys, and The Heat present police violence as a given. Magnum Force is also interesting for contemporary audiences who are awash in a fad of vigilante superhero movies. Although Dirty Harry is not a superhero he does share with those characters the same tense relationship with the law enforcement establishment, although the squad of vigilante cops may have more in common with The Avengers than Dirty Harry does. Magnum Force is also impressive as a detective story. One of the flaws of the original Dirty Harry was the lack of actual police work. In the first film, Dirty Harry coerces suspects with violence and often shows up in the right place by coincidence. In Magnum Force, Dirty Harry proves he is a keen detective as well as a crack shot and this is a generally absorbing story in which the twists and turns of the investigation lead to moments of action.

What Doesn’t: Crime pictures of the 1970s were slower moving than contemporary movies and so today’s viewers have to make allowances for the difference in filmmaking styles. But even by the standards of similar pictures from that time, Magnum Force is a little slow and it isn’t as intense as the original Dirty Harry. That film was a simpler story and it benefited from a narrow focus. Magnum Force is broader and more complicated and so it requires a more measured pace. But it’s a very talky movie and the energy sags from time to time. Director Ted Post had worked primarily in television, having directed episodes of Rawhide and The Twilight Zone, and the production style of Magnum Force frequently looks more like a television show than a feature film. The regard for women in Magnum Force is also problematic. Virtually every woman in the movie is sexualized and the romance between Dirty Harry and a neighbor (Adele Yoshioka) comes across like the premise of a 1970s skin flick.

DVD extras: The Deluxe Edition DVD includes a commentary track, featurettes, and trailers.

Bottom Line: Magnum Force may not be the best regarded entry in the Dirty Harry series but it is a smart and entertaining police picture from the 1970s. Although its filmmaking style has dated, the premise and the themes of the story have a surprisingly contemporary relevance.  

Episode: #453 (August 25, 2013)