Friday, January 25, 2013

Film Friday: The Dead Pool (1988)

The Dead Pool is the last Dirty Harry movie. As cop movies go, this one is ok, but as Dirty Harry films go, this one stinks. Believe it or not, the reason is political. By the time The Dead Pool was made, there just wasn’t that much left for conservatives to complain about in the criminal justice system. And that left this film rudderless.
The Plot
The Dead Pool begins with Det. Harry Callahan, aka “Dirty Harry” (Clint Eastwood), being attacked by men working for a mobster Harry put in prison. Harry survives. He is then assigned to investigate the death of rock singer Johnny Square (Jim Carrey). Harry learns that the director of Johnny’s music video, Peter Swan (Liam Neeson), had put Johnny’s name into a dead pool – a game in which each participant picks celebrities who they think will die and the winner is the person with the most dead celebrities by the end of the game. Swan’s list also included other celebrities who had recently been killed, and it included Harry’s name.
As Harry investigates the case, he destroys a news camera when the news crew gets in the way of his investigation. To get the news crew not to sue the city, Harry is ordered to agree to a dinner/interview with reporter Samantha Walker (Patricia Clarkson). Low intensity sparks fly and she and Harry begin to fall for each other. After another attack from the mobster, she comes to see that the media does sensationalize crime and she learns she doesn’t like it very much when the cameras are turned on her.
Where This Film Goes Wrong
It’s hard not to like a Dirty Harry film. Not only does Eastwood have a great screen presence, and these films tend to be very well written, but Harry’s an iconic conservative hero. Indeed, Dirty Harry is an attack on the liberalism that infested the criminal justice system in the 1960s, which elevated the protection of the guilty above the protection of the public. Dirty Harry also slammed politicians who were more concerned with image than with actually protecting the public. This was a welcome message in an age when society seemed to be falling apart and when liberals kept telling us there was nothing anyone could do about it.
The sequel, Magnum Force upheld the idea of rule of law, which is a rare message in cop films, which usually are closer to revenge fantasies than anything else. The Enforcer went after politicians who tried to make politically correct policies without regard for who got hurt, and it even added a nice little message of judging people on their own merits rather than their identity groups. . . very conservative.

Sudden Impact is where things started to go wrong. This film really was just a revenge film. What’s worse, Harry was nothing more than a passenger in the revenge plot and his role in the film was just to bail out the vigilante.

Then along came The Dead Pool. In some ways, The Dead Pool was an attempt to go back to the original Dirty Harry formula of attacking some bit of leftism that was causing society problems. Unfortunately, the target they chose wasn’t really a good one, and the reason was that the things Dirty Harry attacked had all pretty much been removed from the criminal justice system by 1988. Indeed, by the time this film was made, many of the Supreme Court’s most egregious decisions from the 1960s had been overturned and obviously guilty criminals weren’t getting off on technicalities anymore. Moreover, police officers had come to be seen as heroes by most parts of society. Thus, nothing of which Harry complained in the past was an issue anymore.
So what liberalism does The Dead Pool attack? First, it starts by giving Harry an Asian partner. This harkens back to him being assigned an Hispanic partner in Dirty Harry and a seemingly unqualified female partner in The Enforcer. Both films made the point that liberals are assigning people by race or gender rather than ability. But here, no such message is given. There is no suggestion Harry’s partner is a political statement meant to benefit liberal ideology over rationality.

Secondly, the main thrust of this film is Harry’s relationship with the media, which is where this film goes wrong. In the prior films, Harry criticized something directly related to his profession. He criticized a legal system that let obviously guilty people go free for meaningless procedural mistakes. He criticized people who suggested that the cops should act like death squads. He criticized politicians who didn’t care about how many people were hurt so long as their own careers were protected or their own ideologies could be implemented. These were things which really bothered people because these things flew in the face of common sense, they exploited the public for personal reasons, and they got people hurt. That made those films resonate with people.

This time, it’s different. The message here is that the media is evil for sensationalizing crime. But this is problematic. For one thing, these reporters aren’t nearly as bad as other reporters shown on film. Indeed, it’s hard to see these reporters as particularly bad at all. So essentially, the film criticizes the existence of the press, which is an awkward message at best. For another, this isn’t something which affects the public. In other words, it may stink for Harry or the people who draw the media’s interest, but it doesn’t hurt the rest of us, not like a system that turns killers free. Thus, it’s hard for the audience to sympathize or feel this film applies to them in any direct way. An attempt is made in the film to argue that it does matter to everyone by showing a man who tries to set himself on fire to get media attention, i.e. the media causes us problems by encouraging these people, but even that doesn’t really affect us as he would only end up killing himself.
Then the message gets muddled because Harry and the reporter quickly fall for each other and they both agree that the other is right. Huh? Could you imagine Harry and Mrs. Gray from the personnel board in The Enforcer deciding that the other was right? Hardly. When Harry decides that journalists are just doing their job, he literally wipes out the entire point to the film. It’s like they couldn’t really find an issue for Harry to object to, so they came up with this one, but then weren’t sure they really believed it. And when Walker then says that Harry is right and that she now sees how bad journalists are, she converts her entire side into a straw-man argument, i.e. something that was created only so Harry could knock it down. Both of these points seriously undermine the film’s message and leave the film as little more than a cop film.

And as a cop film, The Dead Pool is an ok. . . not great. It’s got a decent if unsurprising mystery (prior Dirty Harry films were not mysteries), it’s got some action here and there, and it’s competently shot, though it’s not a very beautiful or creative film. Unfortunately, Eastwood seems to be on autopilot in the role and Harry largely spends the movie walking around acting like a grumpy tough guy/caricature of himself. The film also succumbs to big-gun = small-penis syndrome when Harry uses a harpoon cannon to finish off the villain. I guess the .44 Magnum just wasn’t big enough anymore. Still, as cop films go, this one was ok. It probably wasn’t as good as The Presidio or Black Rain, and it certainly wasn’t Die Hard, but it was better than Red Heat.

But unfortunately, this wasn’t just a cop film, it was also a Dirty Harry film. And as a Dirty Harry film, this one is truly disappointing. It lacks the bite of the other films. It lacks the sense of right and wrong. It lacks the sense of us the common people versus them the nutty elites. In essence, this is a cop movie staring a Dirty Harry caricature, not a Dirty Harry film.

39 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

As an aside, they just announced that JJ Abrams will be directing the next Star Wars film... so forget plot. Also, I expect Vader to be re-imagined as a young punk who races pods and using crappy cliches to seduce princesses. . . oh. Nevermind.

Anonymous said...

I sense a disturbance in the Force...
...and I have a very, VERY bad feeling about this.

Well, it had to be said.

-RustBelt

AndrewPrice said...

RustBelt, It did have to be said and I have the same very bad feeling.

K said...

The only Dirty Harry movie I have on DVD is Magnum Force. The commentary is by John Milius who wrote the screenplay and story for it. Milius said that after Magnum Force the producers went with a low budget and lower paid writers to save money. which fits with your observations.

AndrewPrice said...

K, You can really feel that over time that the budgets are going down on these films. It's not that the first couple films were these epics, but they spent an appropriate amount to make the film feel right. The later films feel increasingly small, like they shot them in a rush in a parking lot or in somebody's office while they were on break.

As an aside, Magnum Force is probably my favorite. It's just a great film with a great story, great execution and a great cast.

shawn said...

I remember seeing this when it came out and thinking it was fairly "meh" also. Can't really blame Clint too much, he wanted to make Bird but Waner Bros. wouldn't fund it unless he did one more Dirty Harry flick.

ScottDS said...

Good review!

I watched all five Dirty Harry films for the first time a few years ago and I barely remember this one, except that it did seem smaller than the others (plus the early Jim Carrey appearance). If I recall, it was also shot in 1.85:1 instead of 2.35:1 so it literally isn't as wide and expansive as the other films.

Now, onto Star Wars...

...Part of me wishes this had happened five years ago. JJ would've gotten Star Wars and other filmmakers would've gotten Star Trek.

And this doesn't help the stereotype that Hollywood is an incredibly incestuous place. Why should the same guy get both franchises? It's almost unfair, but I guess Disney backed-up a dump truck full of money to Abrams' house. He even said he wouldn't do it out of loyalty to Trek.

And it would've been nice if they had gone with a filmmaker who maybe didn't have geek cred. Look at the original films - the best film was directed by the guy with no experience with effects or science fiction. They should've tried to get a director who simply knew how to make a great movie with memorable characters, as opposed to someone the geeks would approve of.

J.J. has certainly had success on TV but as far as his FILM career, he ain't Spielberg. He's produced some stuff and he's directed four films, three of which are based on 60s TV series, and another that's Spielberg-lite.

Tennessee Jed said...

this is an interesting analysis, and as I look back on it, I think "K"'s point is absolutely correct. Lesser writers. But, as always, when a great character is introduced like DH, and the success turns into a franchise, it is rare that corners are not cut. Quality almost always deteriorates. Typically, for me, the second film is always toughest, because audience expectations are so high, they are almost invariably disappointed.

With Dirty Harry, it came out when I was a lot less sensitive to political correctness or political correctness. The original Dirty Harry, for me, was a great slap at pc, but it also highlighted a reality of law enforcement that goes back to the very real days of Wyatt Earp. There is a thin line between good and evil, and sometimes that line is defined by little more than what side the hero is on. Basically, if we ask somebody to strap on a gun and protect us from really, really nasty folks, that person has to be as big a bad ass as the bad guy (think the great line about the 6'8" naked man chasing a woman down an alley with a butcher knife.)

Another film that brought that out was Colors with Robert Duval and Sean Penn.

Anyway, as the DH franchise wore on, I tended to expect less including DH becoming a cliche and caricature of himself. I preferred the non-DH film Eastwood did with his daughter set in New Orleans to this one.

Tennessee Jed said...

sorry, one of those pc's was supposed to be "political agenda" :)

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, "Meh" is a good word for this. It's not that there's anything wrong with the film, it just feels so pro forma, like they just went through the motions without any thought or heart.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Scott. Yes, even the film width makes this film feel smaller. And smaller is a good way to describe this film. It feels confined, like it was shot in a couple locations that are all in the same apartment complex. There's never any sense of the public being involved -- just the main actors. The story doesn't really get bigger either -- everything you need to know is given to you very quickly.


As for Star Wars, I wish they had gotten someone who's actually a good filmmaker. I think they should have gone outside the box rather than grabbing the most popular guy in science fiction at the moment. I think this one is going to stink. It's going to be all flash, no story, like Star Wars babies.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I agree. I think the problem with franchises is that they tend to devolve into caricature and cliche. It's hard to keep coming up with good original ideas, especially when you are just in a formula established by a film that may have been specific to an issue.

In this case, I think the problem really was that they just had nothing they could plug into the formula, so they came up with a generic conservative complaint that didn't really resonate. And in that regard, one of the big problems was that they didn't portray the press as nasty enough to make the point. Compare the press here to the press in Predator 2 and you'll see characters who are much easier to sell to the public.

I enjoyed Colors a lot.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

In that way, this film is kinda like the Superman IV of the DH franchise, where you can tell they had less money and were just going through the motions, and the films are only tolerable due to the likability of their leading men. (Reeves and Eastwood, respectively.)

By the way, you had written Hard Rain and I changed it to Black Rain which is the title I believe you meant to refer to. :-)

I was gonna wait till the weekend open thread to talk Star Wars, but you mentioned it first...

...I wish they had hired someone like Tom Hooper, who directed Les Misérables and The King's Speech and most of HBO's John Adams. The man can obviously make a heart-felt good-looking movie with interesting characters.

On the plus side, maybe this means someone like Brad Bird will do either the next Trek film in Abrams' place, or the next Star Wars film after Abrams'.

BIG MO said...

I think your analysis is right on. The Dead Pool – which was the first DH movie I saw – certainly suffered from franchise-itis. It was like a twist of the old James Dean line: “What are you rebelling against, Harry?” “What do you got?” “Well, there’s the media …”

On its entry for The Dead Pool, Wikipedia quotes Eastwood joking in 2000 about making yet another DH sequel: "Dirty Harry VI! Harry is retired. He's standing in a stream, fly-fishing. He gets tired of using the pole — and BA-BOOM! Or Harry is retired, and he catches bad guys with his walker."

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Thanks, yes, I meant Black Rain. :)

I think you're right that the only reason films like this one work at all is because of the likability of the main actor. If you put anyone else in Eastwood's role in this film, the film would have been forgotten as a crappy, cheap cop film with no punch.

On Star Wars, I agree about Tom Hooper. Of course, the Holy Grail choice at the moment is Christopher Nolan. But I think anybody who doesn't just do science fiction films would have been a good choice because Star Wars works best when it's done as a complete story and not just a science fiction story.

AndrewPrice said...

Big MO, Thanks! Excellent use of the James Dean line! :)

This definitely feels like a situation where they didn't really know what to do with the film so they just kind of grabbed something they heard people talking about and tried to turn it into a film. Combine that with the fact Harry is just phoning it in and the utter indifference of the whole production and you get a film that just isn't very memorable.

tryanmax said...

Abrams should do a Dirty Harry reboot.

Yeah. That's all I've got.

AndrewPrice said...

You know at some point, they'll do a Dirty Harry reboot and it's going to suck. It's just going to be a nasty cop running around shooting people who piss him off.

El Gordo said...

I don´t think I ever disagreed with any review on this site ... and I agree again.

As fate would have it, I saw Sudden Impact just last weekend. It´s ok, not great. It is exemplary in one way. I´m very keen on the villain having a messy, humilating death and boy did this movie serve me. The rapist is hit by three .44 rounds (impact is audible), falls five floors screaming through a glass ceiling and is impaled on the horn of a unicorn. How appropriate!

As for JJ Abrams and Star Wars, I have already seen this movie. It was an exciting roller coaster ride. Looked great. Left me cold. Thought about plot holes on the way home.

El Gordo said...

A Dirty Harry reboot? Just set it in the future and call it Dredd. I´ll like it.

AndrewPrice said...

El Gordo, Glad to hear it! :)

I also very much enjoyed the way the villain died in Sudden Impact.

I haven't seen the new Dredd yet, but I definitely want to. It looks like fun to me. But who knows? You're on to something there about taking the Dirty Harry persona and making that into Judge Dredd. That would be an excellent fit.

As for JJ Abrams... yeah, same here. Shiny, nice to look at, left me cold.

ScottDS said...

I've heard good things about Dredd and I look forward to seeing it one day. I think the biggest strike against it (resulting in low box-office) was that people just assumed it was a remake of the Stallone flick, as opposed to a faithful adaptation of the comic.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I have heard nothing about whether or not it was good except that it made no money. I liked the idea and wanted to see it, but the ads turned me off a bit. They kept making the point "THIS IS IN 3D!!!" That's a turn off for me, because it typical means there's nothing to the story itself.

T-Rav said...

Haven't seen it. So as for Star Wars....

After watching multiple Abrams productions, my opinion he is very much an "emotion over logic" guy. I think his movies (Star Trek, Super 8) and TV shows (Lost, etc) are very nice visually, have great soundtracks, and have very stirring drama while you're watching. But in terms of plot and such, more often than not they don't make much sense.

What that means for an Abrams-directed Star Wars, I have no idea. But then, I'm still irked that they're making another movie at all, so there's probably no pleasing me.

Mr_Severus_Snape said...

After seeing seeing all the negative reviews, I avoided this one. I might see it one day, just because of Clint.

Andrew, if you are a huge fan of Dirty Harry, you'll enjoy the new Dredd movie! Not as great as DH, of course, but still quite enjoyable. B-movie done right! Though, I heard the source material for Dredd is a condemnation for Thatcher's England. *sigh*

As for Abrams, I greatly disappointed. He has Star Trek, already for pete's sake! I was really hoping for Brad Bird. Abrams "Super 8" was a huge disappointment!

AndrewPrice said...

Snape, This isn't a horrible movie by any stretch. It just feels tired and small and somewhat indifferent. Clint is still fun to watch and he has some good moments, but there's no bite in this film, like there was in the early ones.

I'll definitely check out Dredd, I'm looking forward to it. :)

I agree about Abrams. Honestly, he's disappointed me every time. Believe it or not, I would even take Michael Bay over Abrams at this point.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I have no problem with them making another movie at this point because I think the prequels ruined the magic of the series, so I don't really care.

That said, I suspect that these films won't feel anything like a Star Wars film. I think they will plunder Star Wars for some cool ideas -- lightsabers, Jedis, the Force, stormtroopers -- and will basically just give you a bland science fiction film using those things. In fact, I suspect that if they didn't use those names, you wouldn't even know that you're watching a Star Wars film.

djskit said...

Can't disagree on any of the Dead Pool comments. I was terribly excited when it came out -(as a young conservative just coming out of college, Dirty Harry was one of my movie heros) and dissappointed when I saw it.

As for Star Wars - I remember seeing Episode I in the theaters, my excitment uncontained, but I was also skeptical. I was struck by how much the first 15 minutes or so just FELT like Star Wars - I can't put my finger on what that means. (Alas, the feeling waned as the feature progressed.)

But I'll know it when I see it when Episode 7 comes out.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, I enjoyed this enough when it came out, but I wasn't jumping for joy. And as time passed, I liked it less. Again, it's not a horrible movie, it's just not at all to the level it should be.

I agree about Ep. I. The first 15 minutes felt like Star Wars and I really excited because it seemed like it was going to be a great movie... then it tanked and it kept getting worse. I have no positive expectations for Ep. 7, so we'll see. Maybe I can be pleasantly surprised? :)

Anthony said...

The only Dirty Harry I really regard as a classic is the original. The villian was much more interesting than anyone in the sequels (I loved the scene where he paid the big guy to throw him a beating).

I'm fine with JJ Abrams handling Star Wars. Nowhere to go but up.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, I prefer Magnum Force, but I also think Hal Holbrook is great. He's one of my favorite character actors.

That is a good scene. I also like the scene where they're at the stadium and the camera pulls away waaaaaaaay up into the sky. I think that's really well done.

Great attitude about Star Wars! :)

ScottDS said...

I'm actually a fan of the fourth DH film, Sudden Impact. I'm not even sure why - I just liked the pseudo-Hitchcock vibe that it had (at times). I also enjoyed The Gauntlet which might as well be a DH film.

As for Star Wars, I've been telling my friends that once a director was hired, that would then inform many of the other decisions. But Abrams has no discernible style of his own, save for those damned lens flares. One thing's for sure - it'll look and sound great. And I look forward to Michael Giacchino channeling John Williams (assuming Williams doesn't want to do it - he is 80 after all).

But Andrew, you have a point about the film being "Star Wars in name only." Some folks feel the same way about his Trek film. Say what you want about the prequels, but at least they felt like Star Wars, for better or worse.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I almost wrote about The Gauntlet today on the basis that it's basically a DH film, but I decided this was a better choice. I may still write the other article at some point. :)

Star Trek was totally Trek in name only... TINOs. :) There is no connection to anything in the Star Trek universe. The characters have no relation except names and ethnicities to the originals. The Enterprise is nothing like the original in any way. The universe doesn't follow the same rules. It's just a big flashy bland sci-fi film that borrowed the Star Trek names and the colors on the uniforms.

I expect Star Wars to be the same.

Dave Olson said...

This is heresy for a good right-wing screwball (such as myself) to admit, but I've never seen any of the Dirty Harry movies all the way through. I've seen most of the one with Tyne Daly as DH's hapless, doomed partner but that's it. One of these days I'll get around to getting a flatscreen TV, and then I'll subscribe to Netflix so I can stream any movie I want, and then I'll make Harry's day by watching at least the first four movies.

Until then, I'll leave all the "J.J. Abrams is gonna screw up Star Wars just like he screwed up Star Trek" stuff for another thread. (Where I'll have TONS to say about it.) For now, I'll bring up "The Star Chamber". It shares the premise of the Dirty Harry franchise: The rampant liberalism of the 60s and 70s has screwed up everything, especially the criminal justice system. Michael Douglas plays a judge who is recruited into a secret panel of his fellow L.A. judges who have decided to mete out justice on their own. Well, not really on their own. They hire a cop to execute recidivist criminals who got off on technicalities.

While Dirty Harry needed five movies to go off the rails, "The Star Chamber" did it to itself. After two guys are slated to be whacked by the vigilante cop, it is revealed that they may have been "innocent" of the crime they were convicted of by the Chamber. When Douglas goes to warn them of their impending doom, he stumbles onto the two lowlifes making PCP in an abandoned warehouse. And what could be more innocent than that?

El Gordo said...

Regarding Dredd, I really liked it. Be warned that there is not much story. It is very simple and straightforward. Totally unpretentious.

I liked it because it can´t be easy making a good dumb movie, or there would be more of them.

I liked it because the visuals are clear and colorful, not the usual blue-gray mud. Clever use of slow motion. It is uncompromising - no sentimentality, very brutal, he never takes his helmet off. Some very dark humor.

They also manage to make the villain memorable without a lot of screen time and without making her in any way nicer. It´s all in the acting. You just sense an emptiness and desperation beneath the cruelty, and that makes here even scarier. Perhaps she even longs for someone to put her out of her misery ... if only she could take the whole planet with her.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, I'm hoping to get my film book out soon. It's in the final stages of editing at this point. In that book, I actually compare the first two Dirty Harry movie to The Star Chamber because they deal with the identical topic but reach different conclusions. And I point out how The Star Chamber cheats its audience the whole way through to make its point.

AndrewPrice said...

El Gordo, That sounds good actually. I HATE that blue-gray mud with a passion. It's almost enough to keep me from watching movies. And I'm sick to death of these supposedly tough stories needing to do that moment where the hero cries about some secret torment in his past so we don't think he's a sociopath... before he decides to go kill everything in site.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I know I chimed in already but something just sunk in... you liked The Presidio?

I mean, it's okay I guess but it's awfully rushed, so much so that I thought every other scene with Mark Harmon and Meg Ryan was cut and the final film ended up with only half their material in it!

But I suppose Connery's worth watching and you don't get many movies that end in bottled water plants. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I haven't seen it in 20 years, but I recall enjoying it -- mainly because Connery and Harmon had pretty good screen presence. Ryan is forgettable.

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