Friday, March 30, 2012

The Enforcer

It is inevitable that when something is as big a box office hit and cultural phenomena as Dirty Harry, that countless imitators and unnecessary cash-in sequels will follow. However, in 1973’s Magnum Force, Eastwood and co. sidestepped a lot of the pitfalls of the sequel to create a film with an intriguing idea that completely flipped the coin on Inspector Callahan, making him a more conflicted character while still adhering to his no-nonsense moral standards; you’re either right or you’re wrong according to Callahan, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a hippy serial killer or rogue cops. So what ground could there possibly be left to cover that wouldn’t seem like recycling what the series had done prior? The Enforcer, the third – and what was supposed to be final – entry in the Dirty Harry series, doesn’t do anything to sour the previous two films of the series, but it also doesn’t do anything extraordinary to cause it to stand out; it’s just kind of there: an efficiently made cop thriller that happens to have one of our favorite movie characters as its protagonist shootin’ bad guys and blowing stuff up real good.  

The story this time around pits Callahan against an extremist group – which is not-so-subtly a representation of the Symbionese Liberation Army (but then again subtlety has never been a priority in this series) – known as the People's Revolutionary Strike Force. This group is less menacing than the previous villains in the series, and it if it weren’t for The Dead Pool, they would have the dubious honor of being the least interesting villains in the series. Once again the filmmakers take something from the headlines and implement it into their plot so that Harry can go head-on against it. Like Magnum Force, The Enforcer is another clear response to the backlash against the series. If middle-class, white America didn’t like that Harry was essentially attacking himself in the second film (instead of blowing hippies away), then here’s the response to those criticisms by making the most extreme example of liberals (just as the death squad in Magnum Force was the most extreme example of the right) the villains. 

The mission of the People’s Revolutionary Strike Force is to get a utility van, break into an arms warehouse, get enough hardware (assault weapons and rocket launchers) to start a small war, and then kidnap the mayor get a ransom out of it. What’s the ultimate motivation, though? The script, written by Stirling Silliphant (more on him later), doesn’t really go into detail about that, and it’s a shame because they end up just being useless thugs that are no more defined than those little cardboard robbers that pop out at police officers when they practice their shooting. Instead, the screenwriters use the cliché of Harry’s partner being shot and killed as he stumbles upon the scene of a robbery as the militant group is shooting up and robbing an arms warehouse. Of course, that’s all the motivation Harry – and the film – needs for him to act as judge, jury, and executioner and send him on his way to take out a bunch of crazed, violent hippies for the remaining 70 minutes.

Perhaps the villains aren’t as memorable in The Enforcer because the real story is the implantation of a strong female partner for Harry. After Harry busts up a robbery, costing the city thousands of dollars in the process, he gets the obligatory verbal undressing from his captain. This of course is about the time where the series was showing the signs of the clichés we all know and love from this particular cop picture. The captain reprimands Callahan, and, of course, he tells him that he’s pulling him off of homicide and sticking him behind a desk because he’s costing the city too much money. That’s all fine and good for a fun exploitation action movie, but what gives The Enforcer an interesting twist is by getting Harry to see past his limited point of view of who – specifically women – qualifies as a good cop. When Harry is busted down to personnel, he has to interview potential new cops. One of the interviewees is Kate Moore (Tyne Daly), who, naturally, ends up as Harry’s partner, therefore – according to the rules of the series and of all genre films like this one – she must die by the end of the film.

I like the dynamic between Eastwood and Daly – an actress that made a name for herself on the stage prior to this film and followed this role finding fame on the television series “Cagney and Lacey” – and there are plenty of scenes in The Enforcer that drive home the point that the mayor and the police department are more interested in PR – its image and it being a proponent of women’s rights – than it is in getting the facts straight. When Harry and Kate (moreso Kate) are given credit for a bust that in actuality ruined an “inside information” type deal Harry had made with “Big Ed” Mustapha – the leader of an underground black militant group – and are forced to do a press conference so that the mayor can extol their efforts (especially Kate), Harry is disgusted.

You see, the mayor wants to bring the department more into the mainstream of the 20th century by, “getting the Neanderthals out of the department.” And it doesn’t matter that he and Harry’s captain – probably the most feckless bureaucrat of the series – have compromised Callahan’s plan; this is the shift the department – and the city – is making, and this plot elements successfully puts Harry back into contention with city hall like he was in the first film. The framing of the press conference scene is one of my favorite moments from the film as Daly is positioned in front of Eastwood who seems to be getting pushed out of the frame. By the end of the presser, Harry wants no part of the dog and pony show that the city is interested in putting on for the cameras, and the whole scene boils over (this is some of the best angry dialogue Eastwood has given himself) leading to Callahan blowing up at his captain (and the captain giving him the “I want your badge!” line that we all know and love) in city hall and telling him to shove his badge up his ass. It’s a great, angry moment for Eastwood whose performance was ridiculed when the film came out, but I thought his performance was just as good as in Magnum Force even if they did make the character a little quippier than previous films but still find a good balance between the humor and the violence. This is the version of the character that really solidified itself as a pop culture icon we know him as today.

The script – even though the idea works and jives with the other two entries – is the most straightforward of the Harry films. Eastwood and co. were right in trimming the film down to a lean 96 minutes (after the overly-long Magnum Force), and it’s nice that it has that kind of no-nonsense, exploitation action feel of the first film, but it’s all very forgettable when you’re done watching it. The aforementioned Stirling Silliphant was well known (although he’s probably best known for his script for In the Heat of the Night) for writing the two big disaster epics of its time: The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. He’s probably less known for – but just as infamous in the bad-movie fan community – his dare with a Texas fertilizer man that this purveyor of manure couldn’t get a horror film made on the cheap. That man’s name was Hal Warren, and the film he made to prove Silliphant wrong was none other than Manos: The Hands of Fate. How is this relevant to The Enforcer? It’s not, except to point out that maybe hanging out with Warren rubbed off on Siliphant (okay not really), and that his lack of motivation for the villains beyond the simple “down with the man” mentality is a real missed opportunity to create some memorable villains (it’s seriously lame that we find out that their sole motivation was just ransom money). It’s no surprise that Eastwood brought in three other writers to re-work the script and get to be more of a generic action flick.  

There’s some interesting things the film does to spice up the character (like replace his hand cannon with a rocket launcher by film’s end, I absolutely love that touch, and they even one-up that in The Dead Pool), Tyne Daly is great and wonderful foil for Harry, I like that Harry’s violence is more justified in the name of avenging his partners death and rescuing the mayor than just blowing away bad guys, I liked Eastwood’s anger and intense focus on getting revenge, and there’s no denying that the final shootout is exhilarating. But it just never comes together for me as the film’s ideas (the script is a big problem) ultimately aren’t as interesting as the previous films. The action is exciting, and the film is interesting while you’re watching (it’s about as harmless a 96 minutes there is), but it didn’t stick with me like the other films – for better or worse – stuck with me.

The Enforcer takes Harry back to the seedy side of San Francisco (I love the scene where Harry and Kate have to go see “Big Ed” at his hangout, and Kate is left to fend for herself while Harry talks to “Big Ed” in his office). Harry also makes his way into a church with a hippie reverend (I couldn't help but think of "The Simpsons" episode where the origin of a young, idealistic Reverend Lovejoy plays out while The Doobie Brothers' "Jesus is Just Alright" plays in the background) which makes for an interesting moment that could have been something more had the script allowed the film to more deeply explore scenes like the one where Harry bursts into the confession booth with his .44 Magnum. It's a scene that could have really been something had the filmmakers not wanted it to end so quickly with violence. And there's nothing wrong with the action or the violence, that is, afterall, what we're here to see when pop in a Dirty Harry movie, but the first two films of the series raised the bar for genre films with ideas. 

The final piece about the setting of the film which is crucial in almost all Dirty Harry movies: I really loved the use of Alcatraz Island as the setting for the film’s final shootout. It only seemed like a matter of time before the series would utilize this setting, but regardless of its obviousness, it’s the perfect setting for what is set up early in the film when Harry’s captain tells him that they don’t need one of his “wild west shows” in regards to a bust; and that’s just what the ending feels like when Kate and Harry have to cross the bay to Alcatraz and rescue the mayor. It has the feel of Eastwood riding in and shooting up and blowing up one of those small towns in his westerns. The only complaint I really have about The Enforcer is that – like Magnum Force – a lot of it feels like a TV movie. Eastwood once again brought on someone to direct that he could boss around easily enough; this time out Eastwood pegged longtime assistant director James Fargo to direct. Fargo – like Ted post before him – seems to be just a name on the screen as I’m sure Eastwood was the one really calling the shots. So I don’t know if we can blame the banal look of the film on Fargo or Eastwood, but it certainly lacks the élan of Siegel’s Dirty Harry. The film is also sorely missing the contributions of
Lalo Schifrin as the film’s score – much like its aesthetic – feels very ‘70s TV cop show.

There’s a final line of dialogue that plays before the end credits as a helicopter circles around Alcatraz Island blaring from the bullhorn letting the terrorists know that the city has given into their demands. Eastwood is still making a statement about larger units of government going the “civil” route with criminals that have terrorist demands. It’s an interesting piece of punctuation to a film that was supposed to be the final entry in the series. It makes sense that they would want to end the series in the decade it began. Things would have probably been different by the time the next film would have gone into production (and by the time Sudden Impact came out the action landscape had changed and would drastically change just a year after its release), and so I find it interesting that the lasting image of Callahan was him spurning the congratulations of the mayor (for saving his life) and going back to the body of Kate who had been shot protecting the very thing that Callahan loathes so much. The demand was too strong, though, for another Dirty Harry entry, and the studio eventually convinced Eastwood to revisit the character in exchange for him being able to make more “personal” films. But as it is, The Enforcer is a fine action film that falls short of being memorable like its predecessors. It’s certainly not the worst film of the bunch, but it is the one with the vaguest antagonist and shakiest story.


  1. Another good review in the series. I'll comment on this one as I recently saw it.

    I agree with you that the interplay between Eastwood and Daly is a nice change of pace, even as cliche as the whole mismatched partners thing often is. Somehow they dynamic between the two worked really well (and speaks to the character of Harry).

    Also, it felt like they wanted to do an action scene in Alcatraz and just built the entire movie around that. Fortunately, it's a well done scene with a nice final moment, so they did that pretty well.

    That makes it nice enough for what it is, but the bland direction (comparing it to a TV-show aesthetic is spot-on) and boring, one-dimensional villains don't allow it to become anything better than that.

    Curious to read what you say on the next two films (which I'm about to read now) as they are both kind of interesting messes.

    (Also -- Tricia watched this with me and wanted to make sure you knew she liked the review here).

    1. I don't know why, but the thought of Tricia watching a Dirty Harry movie makes me laugh, especially one as violent as The Enforcer. So, you should show her The Dead Pool and the giant harpoon gun. That would be awesome.