Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Dead Pool

I’m of two minds about The Dead Pool: on one hand, it’s a fitting end to the series as it doesn’t take itself too seriously and has fun with Callahan’s final outing; on the other hand, it’s sad to see the series switch gears stylistically on its last entry, turning Dirty Harry into just another action hero of the already crowded pool of the 1980s. Perhaps the studio wasn’t pleased with the darker subject matter that Eastwood tackled in Sudden Impact; whatever the case, The Dead Pool has not just the weakest premise and villain of the entire series but also the goofiest. Seen in any other context than a riff on the genre Eastwood helped create, The Dead Pool instills the type of indifference that shouldn't exist in such a successfully visceral film series. 

One need only to point to The Dead Pool to see where shows like “The Simpsons” and the like came up with their parodies of the Clint Eastwood cop character. All the accoutrements are here: The verbal dressing-downs of Harry by the chief, the chief being more concerned with the bill for totaled cars (Harry seems to always be running up a bill on the department) and threatening him with how he’ll “like” things behind a desk as he takes him off the case, gratuitous violence, bad one-liners. Yes, the clichés are in full force here, and it definitely feels as if Eastwood was more concerned with just phoning it in and having some fun with this one. The proof is in the choice for director: Eastwood chose not to return as director for The Dead Pool and instead gave the gig to his longtime stunt coordinator Buddy Van Horn. Horn plays fast and loose with the wacky reaction shots as if he weren’t making a Dirty Harry movie at all (and, oddly enough, it portends the films of Eastwood’s he would make, Any Which Way You Can and Pink Cadillac, that were lighter on violence and higher on comedy.

It’s all just very weird when we consider that what has made Dirty Harry such a fascinating character is his serious belief in his own brand of justice mixed with a sly, dark wit. The Dead Pool starts with some gratuitous violence to announce Dirty Harry’s arrival as a ‘80s action hero (more on that later), a staple of these kinds of action films. From there Callahan and his new partner (as was the case by this point as his partners were contractually obligated to be killed off in every sequel) are then assigned to investigate the death of metal singer Johnny Squares (Jim Carrey in a really early role) who was killed in his trailer while filming a slasher movie. The film’s director, Peter Swan (Liam Neeson), admits to Callahan that he and his producer friend were the creators of a game known as “the dead pool” where they would get people to bet on celebrity deaths, in which Squares was at the top of the list. Swan’s involvement – and Neeson’s incredibly sleazy looking ponytail – should just have a giant sign that flashes: “Red Herring!!” Anyway (back to the plot), things begin to get weird for Swan as his producer friend is offed, too, and Callahan begins to investigate the game where he finds out that he is also on Swan’s list.

The only interesting part of the film’s plot is the device is where Harry is forced to cooperate with the media in covering the story of Squares’ death. Harry is disgusted by the media’s callousness towards the victim’s widow, and so Harry trashes a camera (than, naturally, frustrates the chief since it ruins the department’s image) and is forced to collaborate with the network’s lead reporter (Patricia Clarkson).
More than any other Harry film, The Dead Pool seems pretty random in a lot of spots with the loosest of threads holding it together. It bounced all over the place and has little interesting things to say here and there, but overall it’s a total phone-in/cash-in by Eastwood, and it shows on screen; it’s no wonder this was the final Dirty Harry movie. There isn’t a lot, plot-wise, to keep the viewer interested in the film. The film’s villain is ineffective and anonymous for most of the picture, and the chemistry between Clarkson and Eastwood is wooden and unnatural; however, where The Dead Pool really works and differs for the better than the other Harry films is that it has fun with the material.

Proof that The Dead Pool is one big rib: look at the way they riff on the car chase from Bullit (which is actually the most inspired part of the movie) as Callahan and his partner get in a high speed pursuit through the streets of San Francisco with a remote control car (that looks like the one from the McQueen film). Goofy? Yes. But it’s actually kind of brilliant in its execution. Another example: one of the people on the “dead pool” list is a movie critic that is essentially a stand-in for Pauline Kael; she’s murdered by the killer for her scathing reviews and condemnations of violence. Hmm. Sure, Clint is being a little cheeky here, but it all seems so out of place for a Dirty Harry movie. And that ending, oh man that ending: Harry gets himself a giant harpoon gun, spouts some horrible dialogue that would shame Chuck Norris, and then ends his film with an even worse one-liner (as the bad guy is pinned to the wall by the harpoon, Harry’s fellow officer wants to know where the perp is, and Harry responds. “He’s hanging around”). And, of course, it’s all wrapped up with that now most famous of clichés: the crane shot. You know the shot. This is where they pull away from the action and the credits roll over the smoke and fire and ambulances and cop care and general mayhem seen from above; it’s that same shot that ends all of the Dirty Harry pictures and any other cop/crime TV show or film.

The Dead Pool wasn’t much of a success (it was the least successful of the series, only grossing 37 million, a ridiculously low number considering what other action films, especially cop action films, where pulling in at the time); Harry Callahan seemed passé in the era of Riggs and Murtaugh, Rambo, Arnie, and Seagal. It’s as if the genre passed Eastwood by even though he tried really hard to make Callahan like the aforementioned characters. The “fortune cookie” scene is a perfect example of this where Callahan goes from being the character (and somewhat realistic, albeit ultraviolent, cop) we’ve known – a barometer of the chaotic society he tried to protect – since the beginning of the ‘70s to just another superhuman action star that pops up without much explanation and blows people away while spouting terrible one-liners. Gone was the Callahan that represented the zeitgeist of 1960s/70s America, and with The Dead Pool, Eastwood puts the character to rest with a cartoonish and ridiculous – and, yes, entertaining (it was the shortest of all the Harry movies) – attempt to modernize the character that defined an entire subgenre. It’s not the film is offensive in the way it ends the series, but it definitely instills an apathetic response that none of the other film really triggered. Goofy and entertaining, yes, but Harry Callahan deserved a better send off than this. 


  1. And in that Harry is a celebrity now trapped by his own fame/reputation and therefore targeted for execution/elimination, I think Dead Pool ends up being quite a good sendoff for a character who has become a cliche and can't be taken seriously anymore. The toy-car chase seems to say it all symbolically, going through the motions and delivering but, wink wink, we're now "outside" any serious attempts by the genre. The film also predates a kind of '90s irony/meta-awareness that got quite tiresome by Wes Anderson and late Schwartzenegger.

    1. You're right, Roger, about the film predating that '90s meta-action film style, but Eastwood would have been better off doing that with The Rookie or another non-Harry cop picture rather than trying to do it with the iconic character. There's a little too much wink-wink going on in The Dead Pool, and for some odd reason, it seems as if Eastwood is aware of this and tries to do an impression of someone doing an impression of him throughout the movie. He has a weird speech pattern throughout the film that bothered me for some reason. The whole thing just has a weird tone to it that I didn't think was a befitting sendoff.

  2. The Dead Pool is the only one of the series I've only seen once, as a teenager, and all I really recall is thinking that it felt so much like everybody involved had flat-out given up, that I've never really felt compelled to go back, even though I own it. I can't say that you've given me a lot of reason to change my mind on the subject, but you have my respect for grappling so thoroughly with what's amiss beyond my own knee-jerk dislike of the unseriousness of it.

    This has been a fantastic series.

    1. Thanks, Tim. See my comment above to Roger about what further irked me about the film. I suppose that comes from just having watched The Rookie, and THAT seems like the movie Eastwood should have been cheeky and meta with, not with his most iconic character.

      I remember liking this in high school because I remember thinking the remote control car chase was funny and the harpoon gun was a funny comment on the "bigger is better" mentality of '80s actions films. Still, the recent viewing just left me feeling so cold and indifferent even if I could appreciate some of the things Eastwood and co. were doing.

      Thanks for following along with the series. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm glad I did it because it allowed me to watch Magnum Force again; a film I horribly undervalued when I first saw it in high school (and college, for that matter).

  3. Fantastic series of reviews, I mean; looking back over, my own comment didn't make sense to me. Gah.

  4. I actually enjoyed this movie. I think director,Buddy Van Horn, did a good job on this film.