Use the Force
Going back and watching Dirty Harry can be an awful experience. It took me two tries to finally get through the film, struggling to deal with the leaden pace while also hating the absolutely terrible character in the central role. Dirty Harry isn't a good guy, not because he does the jobs no one else on the police force will do but because he's a casually racist and sexist prick who thinks nothing of beating a confession out of a suspect. He's not the kind of cop we needed, then or now.
What's funny, though, is you can practically hear those notes from the studio heads when watching this film. "Audiences loved the previous film, how Harry was able to get vengeance for all of us against the Zodiac Killer. They just hated Harry. Can you make him... nicer?" That's exactly what the sequel does, start to finish, doing everything it can to reinvent and retcon Harry into the kind of police officer people actually want. Magnum Force feels like a sequel produced to rehab the image of its lead hero and say, in the process, "not all cops." Interestingly, it basically works. It solid enough on its own that if you elected to skip the first flick and just start with the sequel, you'd actually come away thinking Dirty Harry was the only good cop left (that the "Dirty" in his name was meant ironically).
While patrolling the city looking for cases that suit their attention (instead of the stakeout duty they've been assigned), Inspector "Dirty" Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood, of course) and new partner Inspector Earlington "Early" Smith (Felton Perry) stumble onto the murder of mobster Carmine Ricca 9Richard Devon) and his goons. Ricca was on trial for, well, every crime you could think of, but got off when the state was unable to produce properly sourced evidence. The mobster walked, only to get gunned down just a short time later. The cops don't know who managed it, although they do seem at least a little happy that, "someone just saved the tax payers a lot of money on a retrial." Callahan, though, doesn't like the idea of someone taking the law into their own hands.
Over the next few days, as more and more bodies of ne'er do wells start piling up, Callahan begins to suspect there's a serial killer (or killers) on the scene. Their goal: to kill as many bad guys as they can, vigilante style. If the cops can't do what needs to be done, it's assumed, these killers will. Worse, Callahan suspects it might be cops doing the killing. If that's the case, there's no telling how far up the chain of command this vigilante gang may stretch. It's Callahan against the bad apples of the Force, and only one man is going to walk away from this confrontation alive (spoiler: it's Callahan, of course).
Eastwood is on record saying he wanted this film to present a better version of Callahan, not just the vigilante side he seemed to indulge (quite liberally) in Dirty Harry. Almost instantly Harry feels like a different, softer person in this film. He's nicer to women, he has a black partner, and he even makes some favorable comments about the LGBTQ community (even if he does use the word "queer" while doing it). Oh, and he doesn't like people randomly killing criminals, which is a complete one-eighty from the previous film.
Does it work? In context certainly, although it is a bit jarring when you watch these two films back-to-back. Now, let's be fair: back in 1973 (when this sequel came out) it wasn't exactly easy to see these two films back-to-back. The home video market was still on the horizon (Betamax didn't debut until 1975 and VHS came a year later). Maybe you could catch a (edited for broadcast) run of the film on broadcast TV. If you were very lucky maybe you had HBO (which had just debuted the previous year) but then you were subject to their broadcast schedule. More likely you had to see if a theater in the area was re-running the film and catch it there. In short, once Dirty Harry left theaters you were unlikely to be able to just watch it to "catch up." As such, this reinvention actually does work well on its own. In the two years between films maybe you could be fooled into thinking this was the same old Harry, using his gun for good (not) like always.
You can also feel the need to put Harry on the right side of the law when it comes to the story. Yes, it's very bad guys that are dying, but that means Harry can work to clean up the police force from the inside. He's working for you, the viewers, doing the dirty job that needs doing. Certainly I like him taking on a bunch of dirty cops over, say, a group of black bank robbers. It's easier to root for him when he's going after clearly bad guys and, as a bonus, you don't feel too bad about the other people getting killed because they're bad guys, too. It's like the story is engineered to put Harry on top.
Working against the film is the fact that it doesn't really engage as well as it could with the politics of the material. While the vigilantes are cops, the film doesn't make any comment towards police brutality, illegal dealings on cases, or anything else that the "bad apples" in the Force have been know to indulge in for as long as modern policing has been a thing. Harry questioning the way the Force is set up, question the idea of whether the corruption stops with this group or goes even higher up, would have gone a long way towards actually engaging the material. Instead this film takes the oft (misunderstood) stance about how the bad guys are "just a couple of bad apples." Bad apples ruin the crop, that's the point, but the film doesn't engage with that idea at all.
Worse, it also telegraphs who the bad guys are from the beginning. It's easy to know, just from basic screenwriting, that when new characters are introduced to a series they're likely going to be the bad guys, and this film doesn't buck that trend at all. You can practically see the film circling characters as they get introduced, saying, "hey, keep an eye on this one..." It's a little too obvious, a little too pat and easy. I would have liked a better, deeper mystery that could have involved some real digging and actual police work. Then, at least, we might have engaged more fully with the material at hand.
I also have to say that it was laughable in the film when Harry takes an anti-vigilantism stance. Harry, the guy who basically went extra-judicial in the previous film to hunt and kill Scorpio. Somehow we're supposed to believe that this guy is going to be the moral center of the police force. I could buy it from his partner, early (who is sadly under-utilized here), but it comes out sounding all wrong from Harry's lips. This gets us back to the idea that this film works siloed away from the previous film, where you don't have to take it in context and can just remember that Harry is a "good guy". He's good here, even if the first film had a lot to say otherwise.
It's even sillier to think that Harry is opposed to vigilantism when, in the end, he battles all the dirty cops and kills them. "So you're against them killing, Harry, but it's fine if you have to do it?" Sure, he does it with panache, as all the action in this film is solid (certainly better filmed than the previous movie). It's just that when Harry tries to say, "you shouldn't be vigilantes," not only does this smack as hypocritical due to his past actions but also due to the actions he's about to engage in as well. "Do as I say, not as I do," has never had a clearer on screen representation.
Despite all this, I did like Magnum Force for what it was. It's not as colorful as the previous film, but it also doesn't have that film's ugly politics either. It's a lot easier settling into this movie and shutting your brain off to enjoy the ride, which isn't nothing. If the previous film was a dark and ugly wish fulfillment fantasy this movie is just Hollywood popcorn, through and through. Fans of the original might not like the changes made for this sequel, but anyone just looking for action cheese could do a lot worse than Magnum Force.