“It must make you feel good to make old, ugly things right again.” This is a line uttered halfway through Sudden Impact in response to artist Jennifer Spencer (Sondra Locke) who is restoring an old carousel on the pier. This line of dialogue also seems applicable to the film itself which was the first Dirty Harry film to be released in seven years, and the first to be officially directed by Eastwood. Sudden Impact is an attempt to not only revive the series but to also restore its reputation and image after the so-so (so-called) final film of the series, The Enforcer. Sudden Impact is a return to form even if it is a bit too long and glossier than the films released in the ‘70s were. It’s a hard-hitting, violent, exhilarating – albeit cartoonish at times – and frustratingly uneven revival for the most famous San Francisco homicide detective and his .44 Magnum. It must have made Eastwood feel good to know that he could still rake in the dollars with this character; it’s just a shame that he seemed content allowing Harry to flounder from scene to scene until the final hour when the film presents one of the more interesting conflicts for Harry.
Sudden Impact provides Harry with the last truly great antagonist of the series: a female vigilante (the aforementioned Jennifer Spencer played by Locke) who is taking out petty criminals and making headlines doing it. Harry confuses the murders – which are quite brutal – as the work of a local crime boss. However we come to find the reason for Jennifer’s killing spree, and the reason she’s restoring a carousel by the pier: this is where her and her now comatose sister were raped 10 years ago, and she’s hell-bent on killing every single responsible for that horrible night.
Callahan doesn’t get assigned to the case immediately, though, and the film has some fun re-introducing him into audiences. We’re introduced to Callahan for the first time in seven years with a familiar song: a criminal he’s busted is set free because Harry used illegal search and seizure methods to make his case. The subsequent scene in the elevator with Harry and the now-released criminal is one of the best scenes of the movie giving Eastwood a great tirade about the criminal being like “dog shit,” and then telling him the various ways one can go about disposing of dog shit. After that scene in the elevator, Callahan breaks up the robbery in his favorite coffee shop; this is where the famous “go ahead, make my day*” line appears. So far so good for Sudden Impact: interesting villain, good one-liners for Callahan, an inspired performance (despite his uneasiness about resurrecting the character) from Eastwood, and a good mix of comedy and action that would soon be a staple in ‘80s action films. However, the film really lets its premise down with a series of boring and pointless shootouts that do nothing but deter Harry from the more interesting aspects of the plot.
(*And this little tidbit will only be interesting to a handful of people that read this blog, but for the exploitation fan, the line “Go ahead, make my day” was written by none other than the man that would receive a “story by” credit: Charles B. Pierce. Yes, the same Charles B. Pierce who is somewhat of an Arkansas Drive-in legend thanks to his films The Legend of Boggy Creek, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, and the more infamous – thanks to its appearance on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” – Boggy Creek II: The Legend Continues.)
Harry is removed from San Francisco for the first time – after stirring up all kinds of trouble: illegal search and seizure, causing a crime boss to have a heart attack (in a great scene), and fending off two different groups that try to run him off the road. The trail of dead bodies in the film is long, and because of this, Harry’s superior gets him out of the city for a while to investigate the female vigilante murders. The problem isn’t that Harry is involved in these little subplots – and in fact they would probably seem at home in another Dirty Harry movie – but it’s the fact that it’s so frustrating watching the film (the second longest of the series, clocking in at nearly two hours) plod along and waste time until it inevitably gets Harry where he needs to be: involved in the Sondra Locke storyline.
Everything about the city – the lack of law and order especially (in an early “get off my lawn” moment for Eastwood) – is weighing on Harry, and it’s one of the reasons why he doesn’t seem all the put off by the idea of a woman popping off scum bag rapists (one of which dies by having his penis shot off…yeah, there’s that kind of subtlety at play here). It’s important that Harry be more disgusted than usual with San Francisco because Sudden Impact does something interesting about halfway through the movie: it removes Callahan from the city we’ve always associated him with. As he investigates the vigilante murders, Harry leaves San Francisco and heads to San Paulo where he breaks up yet another robbery and receives a pet bulldog as a reward. At this point, the movie is so very close to going off the rails, yet Sudden Impact rights itself and gets back on track when Harry begins to strike up a relationship with Jennifer; this sets-up what is the film’s most interesting conflict and one of the better dilemmas Harry has to face as they will naturally strike up a relationship while Harry must decide by the end of the film whether or not he will arrest her for the murders she committed. It’s interesting because just like Magnum Force, Harry must decide whether his own brand of justice (who cares about the fine print: wrong is wrong and people must pay for breaking the law) is justified when it’s someone else (especially a woman) pulling the trigger.
Eastwood didn’t necessarily want to do the film, but he gave in to Warner Brothers’ pleas for him (there were calls from the public to bring the character back) to do another Harry movie in exchange for letting him to do some personal films (my hunch: two of those films were probably Pale Rider and Bird). Eastwood finally attaches his name to “director” for the first, and only, official time in the series’ history. He directs with a panache not seen in his modern films, yet the film is a little too long as it takes Harry on so many unnecessary, violent detours before getting him to the film’s most interesting storyline and conflict. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Eastwood’s straight-forward approach to filmmaking (especially lately), but there does seem to be some energy – some kinetic energy to the aesthetic – that shows that even if he did compromise to make this picture, he wasn’t completely phoning it in. The highlight of the film is the final shootout on the pier; Jennifer being tormented by the same people that raped her and her sister while there seems to be no help in sight. Then Callahan appears like the angel of death; harshly backlit by the lights of the boardwalk shrouding Callahan in shadow as a neon halo appears over his head; his .44 Magnum in silhouette being the primary thing we focus on. It’s a wonderful shot and an exhilarating ending to a horribly uneven (re)entry into the series.
I guess, ultimately, Sudden Impact leaves me with a similar feeling The Enforcer left me with: here’s a film that’s I’m pretty indifferent towards when I have time to critically think about it, but, like almost all Dirty Harry pictures, while I’m watching it, I totally get involved and invested in the brutal justice of Harry Callahan. That’s the amazing thing about these films and why they will always work as great entertainment even if all of them don’t work as some kind of deeper social commentary.
Sudden Impact has a theme that is at home in exploitation cinema (a little bit of I Spit on Your Grave found its way into the storyline), but the execution is a little too polished and cartoony for it to compare to the first Dirty Harry or its fantastic sequel, Magnum Force. Gone is the gritty, grimy feel – that wouldn’t return until Eastwood got really grimy with his non-Harry film Tightrope – to make a way for a glossier, Hollywood action film look. The deaths come more often and are much more brutal, but they almost always feel detached from the film’s story. People were definitely ready to see Dirty Harry back in action, and they came out in droves to see the character return (Sudden Impact was the most successful Dirty Harry picture) and implement his brand of bloody justice. Sudden Impact is a sort of precursor to the more violent action cinema of the ‘80s. In one scene, the last of the surviving baddies gets a death that would be more befitting for something like Commando as he’s shot and drops off the top of an amusement park ride and falls through the roof the carousel beneath him right through the horn of one of the horses. It’s probably the most stylized, convoluted, and graphic deaths to befall a Dirty Harry villain; usually he just shoots them, and that’s it.
And that’s one of the most fascinating things about the Sudden Impact version of Harry. The character and the film are more gratuitously violent, and the films it would inspire and spawn would ultimately be the cause for the character’s demise as just five years later when the final Dirty Harry movie would be released, the genre – and the fans’ expectations for these types of movies – had completely passed Eastwood by. Sudden Impact was shocking in its violence at the time, but it would only be a few years before Arnie, Sly, and Seagal (and the Lethal Weapon series) would introduce a much more graphic and violent (and cool) process of dispatching bad guys, making Harry a dinosaur in the genre. Still, in the end, if I were to rank the Dirty Harry sequels, Sudden Impact works better for me than The Enforcer because the antagonist is better, providing a more interesting and layered conflict for Callahan by film’s end.