When Gran Torino was rumored to be the sixth Dirty Harry movie, I hoped Clint Eastwood wouldn’t make Charles Bronson’s mistake. Bronson’s Paul Kersey appeared in five Death Wish movies, each more preposterous and violent than the last. The final Death Wish film, The Face of Death, gave 73-year-old Bronson a much younger girlfriend and more people to shoot. Clearly too old to be chasing anything besides young punks off his lawn, Bronson looked ridiculous. I kept waiting for him to roll into the frame on a Hoveround tricked out with flamethrowers and ballistic missiles.
Since Eastwood was 78 when Gran Torino was announced, I feared the worst. Harry Callahan would fire his famous .44 Magnum, and the kick back would cause his arm to fly off. Running up those hills in San Francisco would kill him before anybody could “make his day.” Thankfully, Eastwood played a different sort of racist with a gun in Gran Torino. So 1988’s The Dead Pool remains the last we’ll ever see of Dirty Harry, at least until Warner Bros. inevitably greenlights a reboot.
Directed by Clint’s longtime stunt coordinator, Buddy Van Horn, The Dead Pool is a fitting swan song for the controversial police lieutenant created by Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink. Coming 17 years and three sequels after 1971’s Dirty Harry, the film finds Eastwood and company still using the series’s tried-and-true formula: Criminals commit heinous crimes and Dirty Harry shoots them with his big-ass gun. Occasionally there’s a love interest and/or a partner to “soften” Harry’s rough edges and make him appear more human. These people are supremely unlucky and usually deceased; their demise is always foreshadowed by their pointing out that Callahan’s companionship is hazardous to their health. By film’s end, Harry has solved the crime, splattered the villains, avenged his lost lover/partner, and walked away while the camera pulls up for a final overhead shot of the carnage.
The Dead Pool plays like a greatest-hits collection of Dirty Harry movie elements. As in the first film, there’s a vicious serial killer, and as in Magnum Force, there’s a soon-to-be-blown-up-by-a-bomb minority partner (Evan Kim) for the politically incorrect Callahan. Like in The Enforcer, my favorite of the five movies, there’s a professional woman whom Harry begrudgingly learns to respect. And in a nod to Sudden Impact’s famous Reagan-era tagline, there’s a slogan screenwriter Steve Sharon must have hoped would be used by people and presidents alike. Unfortunately, The Dead Pool’s twice-uttered catchphrase for Harry is no “Go ahead, make my day.” Before blowing away a perp at a Chinese restaurant, Harry opens a fortune cookie and tells the guy “you’re shit outta luck.”
That bullet-ridden criminal isn’t the only one who’s S.O.L.: There’s a list of celebrities going around, and if your name’s on it, people are betting on your untimely death. Called “The Dead Pool,” the game is played by Peter Swan (Liam Neeson, long before he got Taken), a hack horror-movie director on location in San Francisco. Swan’s lead actor, a rock singer named Johnny Squares (Jim Carrey!!), is on Swan’s Dead Pool list. This makes the director a prime suspect when Squares winds up dead on the set. Squares’s death by overdose is preceded by Carrey’s on-screen death by embarrassment. Shimmying and shaking his elastic body during a music-video sequence, Carrey opens his mouth and Axl Rose’s voice comes out. Carrey lip-syncs “Welcome to the jungle!!!” as a dummy possessed by the devil spins her head until it bursts into flames. “That dummy should have been singing Michael Jackson songs,” I thought.
Dirty Harry winds up on the Dead Pool list as well, but not before testifying against Mafioso Lou Janero. Harry’s testimony makes him a celebrity, putting him in the path of newscaster Samantha Walker (Patricia Clarkson). Walker is something of a sleazebag, thrusting her camera into people’s faces as they emotionally break down. Harry’s idea of a meet-cute is breaking Walker’s camera. She responds by practically blackmailing him into having dinner with her. This is what passes for romance on Callahan’s beat.
Armed with a copy of the Dead Pool list, Callahan tries to stay one step ahead of the murders. Swan, who’s such a prick that one hopes he’s the killer, looks more and more guilty as his enemies wind up butchered in the same manner as victims in his films. The Dead Pool screws up big time by presenting us with the killer in silhouette, but allowing us to hear his voice. Since the maniac’s British accent is worse than Kevin Costner’s, we immediately know Swan is innocent.
I’m a sucker for the Dirty Harry series, and part of the fun of this one is a sense that Clint is settling personal scores. The press, directors, and film critics all take a beating. The critic, who reminded me of Pauline Kael, meets an especially mean-spirited end. “Do you like my movies?” asks the guy with the fake British accent. “Who are you?” the critic responds. Wrong answer, lady!
If nothing else, The Dead Pool should be remembered for its homage to Bullitt’s famous car chase. Flying over hill after hill, Callahan and Kim try to outdrive an explosive remote-controlled car that looks like KITT from Knight Rider. Van Horn expertly stages this riotously enjoyable chase sequence, cutting between the killer (who’s driving both a real car and the toy one) and the increasingly panicked Harry. There’s high comedy in the sound effect the toy car makes, not to mention its ability to go about 90mph. Before gunning for Harry, the killer does a test run, blowing up another Dead Pool victim in the process. The killer blows up Harry too, but watchers of this series know Dirty Harry Callahan is impervious to car accidents. Harry gets out of the car and walks away after the explosion.
Less disturbing than its immediate predecessor, Sudden Impact, The Dead Pool ends the series on a lighter note than one might expect. It’s still plenty violent, but it takes the occasional breather for Callahan to interact with his partner and his journalist lover. Lalo Schifrin once again scores Harry’s movements, and Clarkson holds her own as the one character with an arc. She’s stupidly put in danger as a device for Harry’s heroism, but I liked how she refused to play the victim. Neeson only has one note to play, but he’s suitably unlikeable. Clint is Dirty Harry, so all he has to do is show up, growl, and shoot a huge harpoon through a guy’s chest.
It probably wasn’t wise for the filmmakers to end Dirty Harry’s reign with Eastwood uttering a post-killing line more suited for Stallone or Schwarzenegger, but from an entertainment standpoint, The Dead Pool doesn’t leave one shit outta luck.
Odie “Odienator” Henderson feels lucky, punk, and lucky he is. He writes for RogerEbert.com, Big Media Vandalism, Movie Mezzanine, and of course, The House Next Door.