Saturday, August 30, 2008

Good For The Department's Image

I’ve tried, but I can’t approach writing about THE DEAD POOL with any real degree of seriousness. It’s easily the goofiest of all the DIRTY HARRY sequels and nothing about it feels like anybody overexerted themselves too strongly in making it. But in spite of this I always find myself enjoying watching every last ridiculous second of it. Come to me on my death bed and ask me which of the HARRY sequels I want to see before it’s too late, I’ll pick THE DEAD POOL without even thinking about it.

As the film begins, Harry is getting some unwanted media attention after successfully putting crime boss Lou Janero behind bars. The credits are barely off the screen when as he’s driving along one night some of Janero’s goons come after him with machine guns. They give chase and run him off the road, but Harry manages to take care of them, with a shot to the head each for two and taking care of the last by shooting him in the back as he runs away (Jeez, Harry). His captain expresses his displeasure over the incident by yelling at Harry for trashing yet another squad car. All the attention Harry’s been getting is good for the department’s public image however (we see him on a magazine cover—how did any photographer ever get close enough to take a photo?) and to keep a leash on him, Harry is assigned a new partner, Al Quan (Evan C. Kim). Meanwhile, rock star Johnny Squares (Jim Carrey, credited as “James”) o.d.’s while shooting a horror film in San Francisco. Harry and his partner investigate, with suspicion naturally falling on the film’s egotistical director Peter Swan (Liam Neeson) but it soon comes out that Johnny Squares was a name on a Dead Pool game being played by Swan and other crew members…and Harry’s name is on the list as well. Harry’s attention is also occupied by beautiful television reporter Samantha Walker (Patricia Clarkson) who has her own interest in Callahan.

Made extremely quickly in 1988 (five months from start of production to release in theaters) and directed by Buddy Van Horn, THE DEAD POOL was presumably made as a tradeoff with Warner Brothers so Clint could direct BIRD, which was shot before this but released after. It’s a very silly movie but much of that was presumably intentional, especially the Captain’s repeated rants at Harry (“When I told you to stop wrecking our cars, I didn’t mean to go out and find something else to destroy!) and after the scuzziness of SUDDEN IMPACT it actually makes for a more enjoyable popcorn movie, so much that the few points where it approaches the extreme of the other movie seems maybe a little too much in this context. The nature of the media and celebrity circa 1988 is at least a nod towards some depth (Clarkson’s character is actually fairly believably written and played in this sense), but it’s tough to take too much of this very seriously particularly when it comes to some of the bad-TV level dialogue that overexplains things to all the dummies in the audience (one discussion of the case between Harry and Al includes: “The coroner said Squares was using Speedballs.” “An injection of cocaine and heroin?” “Yeah.” Gee, thanks for the information guys). The portrayal of the horror movie being shot is pretty ridiculous too—the production continues immediately even though the star has just died, the films Swan makes wasn’t being made by anyone in 1988 (we hear titles like HELL WITHOUT THE DEVIL and NIGHT OF THE SLASHER) and all the crew members are blatantly incompetent. When the cops sit down to watch clips from Swan’s films (represented by actual unidentified movies) they react to them as if watching something that came from a deranged mind. I guess violent action films are ok, but anyone watching violent horror films should seek immediate psychiatric help. But saying all this implies that I’m taking any of this seriously, which I of course don’t, and the total ineffectiveness of it as a mystery (Who’s killing the people on the dead pool list? Um, that guy, over there) almost underlines the point. Still, you could argue that this movie exists to see Harry Callahan blow people away with his Magnum, not to see him solve an intricate series of crimes. The best part of the entire film, almost its very reason for being, is of course the chase with the miniature car, outfitted with a bomb, pursuing Harry in his car through the streets of San Francisco in a pretty damn fun spoof of the car chase in BULLITT. Parts of this film are almost played for comedy and Eastwood does a good job playing it that way, but the chase is played totally straight and it’s all the funnier for it—much like BULLITT, also scored by Lalo Schifrin, it’s almost entirely played without music. The sequence doesn’t come at the end which means everything that follows seems anticlimactic, but it really is worth watching the entire movie for it.

It is, in all honestly, the least visually distinguished of the series. It’s the only one not shot in Scope (at 91 minutes, it's the shortest too) and looks pretty much like a TV show—THE NAKED GUN probably has as much visual style. The fact that the opening or closing are pretty much exactly the same as in SUDDEN IMPACT (opening credits over the city at night, ending credits that start with helicopter shot from Eastwood and the leading lady) is the sort of thing that would indicate a continued use in a series but since the earlier films didn’t utilize this idea it just seems like it’s a case where it was used once before, they may as well use it again. Lalo Schifrin’s score isn’t all that memorable, but bits of themes from the earlier films can be heard if I pay close attention and it’s always fun to hear Schifrin music backing up Clint Eastwood anyway.

Eastwood’s a lot of fun to watch. Of course he is. He knows the part and seems relaxed enough this time to know how much to play some of it for the laughs. He also gets to say “Swell” a few times once again. Patricia Clarkson, not the sort of actress you’d expect in this sort of movie, is enjoyable to watch partly because of her height—she seems genuinely amused at how Clint Eastwood is at least a head taller than her and plays it as determined to use this to her advantage. Anyway, she’s pretty darn cute here. Evan C. Kim, whose immortality will be as the Bruce Lee figure in the “Fistful of Yen” segment of KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, manages to make his character likable despite the fact that he tells some very bad jokes. He also uses a few martial arts moves during one shootout in Chinatown (the obligatory Harry-stumbles-onto-a-crime sequence). Michael Currie, reprising his role in SUDDEN IMPACT, plays the Captain who yells at Harry a lot. Liam Neeson and Jim Carrey, truthfully, don’t make much of an impression for me here, but it is cool to see them in such early roles.

There’s nothing about THE DEAD POOL that makes any nods towards it being a “final” Dirty Harry film. It simply allows Clint Eastwood to spend ninety minutes portraying his famous character one more time. In no way does it approach the level of seriousness of other films in the series, but even in that goofiness there is a slightly adult tone to it all, the sort you don’t get anymore, which reminds me how these films really do come from another time. I’m pretty sure that it’s not a favorite of any of the people involved but I still need to pull it out and watch it again every now and then, even if it’s just to see Clint Eastwood’s realization that a toy car is trying to kill him one more time.


Unknown said...

Mr. Peel, you should really rewrite your review so as to credit the movie with the full title (as evidenced on the lobby cards and poster you have up): DIRTY HARRY IN THE DEAD POOL.

If there was no Clint Eastwood, a movie with this title might've been released as some obscure softcore effort in the 1970s.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Well, the title as seen in the film really is THE DEAD POOL, so I'm afraid that's what we're going to have to go with.

If there was ever a softcore entry with the same title, I haven't come across it. Not that I've done much looking.