Street Justice Makes a Return

Sudden Impact

Dirty Harry's success in 1971 spawned a successful franchise, a series of films that played through the 1970s. This is especially impressive when you consider that, at the time, sequels were viewed, by Hollywood itself, as cash grabs that wouldn't make as much money as the original. Tides were turning, of course, and the Dirty Harry films were one of those franchise that helped to prove if you keep the films consistently funded, audiences might just continue following the movies. While not a giant blockbuster in its own right, the franchise helped to seed the concept of continuing, enduring blockbuster franchises.

Sudden Impact

But then, when it comes to actual blockbuster numbers, you need look no further than the fourth film in the series, Sudden Impact. The previous films had come out at regularly spaced intervals, with two years between Dirty Harry and Magnum Force, and another three years for three-quel The Enforcer. But then the series took a break, letting the character rest for seven years before unleashing the fourth film in the series, Sudden Impact, and audiences were clearly eager to see Harry once more. Where the previous films all recouped around $36 to $45 Mil, the fourth entry pulled in a whopping $150 Mil at the Box Office. Even accounting for an inflated budget (at $20 this film cost twice as much to make as The Enforcer) this was still a dream haul.

So what brought the audiences back for more Dirty Harry? Best guess was fondness for the character and a return to the kinds of movies Harry was known for. At it's core, this movie isn't all that different from the previous adventures of the "just this side of the law" cop. It's really a series of vignettes, littles scenes of Harry being a cop, taking down random bad guys, interspersed with scenes of this film's serial murderer doing their killing thing. We've already seen this exact structure in two of the previous three films, both for Dirty Harry and Magnum Force. This film also marks Harry being less "soft", less "nice", and more "dirty". He's back in bad cop mode here, kicking names and taking ass, will little regard for the true merits of the law. If what audiences wanted was true street justice as laid out by Harry Callahan, this is the film they'd been waiting for (and they came for it in droves).

With all that being said, giving audiences what they wanted may have worked at the Box Office but that doesn't necessarily make for a good movie (see also: Jurassic World). While this adventure does feel like the truest sequel to the original Dirty Harry, it lacks the charms and wit of the sequels, the things that actually made Harry enjoyable to watch. By letting the character backslide into being a true, dirty curmudgeon, it wipes away much of the character growth the films had bestowed up Harry. In 12 years the character has managed to end up right back where he started, which doesn't really make for an interesting arc for the character. Even if he were to grown in this fourth film (which he doesn't, bear in mind) it'd be hard to trust that he learned any real lesson when they could just wipe it away again in the future. This film may have given audiences what they wanted, but it came at a steep price for the character and is overall potential.

Oh, but it's okay, I guess, because this time he's doling out street justice to rapists. Harry is set on the case, early on, of a guy who is discovered in his car, shot in the head and in the balls. Note that's how the film put in. Not, "the victim suffered trauma to the genitals due to a gunshot." No, it's, "he got shot in the head and the balls, Harry." The San Francisco P.D. gets to stay classy here. Regardless, once set on the case, Harry starts following the clues and that leads him to the seaside town of San Paulo, CA, to follow up on his clues. He also has to bail out of San Fran because he put a mobster in the hospital and the mobsters goons want revenge. But, note, this storyline doesn't really go anywhere and eventually just gets ignored entirely.

While in San Paulo, Harry meets Jennifer Spencer (Sondra Locke). An artist by trade, Spencer paints deep, vibrant paintings that tap into some kind of inner trauma. She certainly has trauma, too, as Spencer was the victim of a gang rape years earlier. She's been haunted by the event ever since while her sister has been in an institution, catatonic after the attack. But when Jennifer spies one of the men who attacked her, she strikes and gets her revenge, leaving him in his car with his balls blown off. That's Harry's corpse, and soon Harry begins to suspect that Jennifer might just be connected to the case, especially as he starts digging and more and more bodies start dropping in this peaceful seaside town. Will harry figure it all out? Will Jennifer face real justice at the hands of Inspector Callahan?

In basic construction, Sudden Impact is very much a clone of the first Dirty Harry film. Harry gets a case but then spends the first 30 minutes ignoring that case while he solves other, unrelated crimes. Hell, he even thwarts a robbery by a gang of black men, just like in the first film. While it's not a direct carbon copy, you can see enough of the same beats that you get the vibe this film was crafted as a "return to form" for the dirty detective.

The one place where the film differs from the previous adventure is that you know, from the start, who the killer is. The film doesn't try to hide who Jennifer is or what she's up to. It very quickly spells out her motivation for revenge, the gang rape, so she can dish out some (arguably) justified street justice. Whatever your thoughts on her actions might be, the film absolutely feels like she's justified in her killings. It makes no bones about it. She was attacked, her sister is in a coma, and Jennifer wants her revenge. It's time for these men to pay.

While that's an understandable position to take (you won't really find anyone arguing that gang rape is a good thing, at least not anyone sane and stable) it does undercut one of the main tenants of this series: it's not okay to take the law into your own hands. We saw that in Magnum Force where Callahan literally makes that point. Sure, Harry takes the law into his own hands but he does it right before throwing away his badge, implying (right up until a sequel came along) that he was done being a cop because he'd crossed a line he couldn't uncross. But then he did uncross it, and became a bit of a boy scout. You can see why him being okay helping a murderer, even if the murder was "justified", seems out of character here.

I guess the argument (which the film tries to make) is once all the rapists are dead, Jennifer would have no reason to kill again. Sure? I guess? But Harry has never shown that level of nuanced thinking. He's always been a pretty black and white guy. The law is the law and either you stay (ever so slightly) on the right side of it or you're a criminal. Case closed. Perhaps it's his affection for Jennifer (they do fall into bed together once) or maybe it's just the details of the case (it's hard to tell if it effects him because he only ever has that one grimace on his face at all times), but Harry decides this time the killings are fine. This is wildly out of character and killed the end of the film for me.

Not that the rest of the film really hooked me. At just shy of two hours this is one of the longest, and sloggiest, of the films in the Dirty Harry series. The pacing for the film is way off, reminding me of films made in the 1970s with their slower, more methodical (some would say "tedious") pacing. Curiously, the Dirty Harry films never really suffered from poor pacing, so this film feels like a throwback to an era that the original films existed in but weren't a part of. It's a weird vibe, made even weirder by the fact that the cinematography feels perfectly 1980s (high contrast colors, brighter grain, sharper detail) which is at odds with the pace.

As the only film in this series directed by Eastwood himself, it's likely he was going for his own specific vibe and brand. He'd directed a number of films before, and directed many more since, and I will say that he does have a methodical, slower pace to his films. This movie fits that vibe, which might be right for Eastwood (that's debatable) but didn't work in this context. This is just a long, slow movie without a lot of action or flair to really spruce it up. It's no nonsense, even gruff. It's old, like Harry is starting to feel.

Sudden Impact was a smash when it came out, but arguably it's most enduring legacy ever since has been the famous line, "go ahead, make my day." It's a solid catchphrase that originated here, adding another thing from this series that people can quote (while forgetting where it came from). That's likely the only thing people will take away from this film, though, as long term it just hasn't aged very well. It's long, it's boring, and it's really just not worth watching. Not anymore.