Set in post 60s San Francisco, Dirty Harry finds uber-cop Harry Callahan on the trail of psychotic killer Scorpio (a terrifying Andy Robinson) who has been picking off citizens with his sniper rifle. Can our hero bring this serial killer to book, or will he be foiled by the pinkos in City Hall? By far the best, Dirty Harry is raised above other police dramas by its iconic central character. The archetype for all subsequent maverick cops, Travis-Bickle-with-a-badge Harry is genuinely alarming in his monomaniacal pursuit of justice.
Made two years later, Magnum Force, whilst still compelling, marks the point in the series where the rots set in. This time, Harry is confronted with a series of murders of the city's most famous criminals. As with Dirty Harry, Magnum Force's central theme is the difference between justice and law. Sadly, somewhere along the line, the whole thing has been confused and watered down. Harry is still a towering presence, but his pursuit of the murderous, justice-hungry young traffic cops (his spiritual children, for all intents and purposes) sees him working for the authorities rather than in spite of them.
Sadly, it's all downhill from here. By the time The Enforcer had waddled along in 1976, series writer John Milius had bailed out - leaving it to trundle merrily down the road to formula hell. Having pissed his superiors off once too often, this time we find him busted down to Personnel, stuck with a female side kick (Tyne Daly) and working to thwart a group of young terrorists who are holding the city to ransom after an arms robbery. The film tries to succeed by swopping tight plotting, high tension and brutality for hilarious 'they just don't get on, do they' gags. Their effort is only worth a disappointing...
Sudden Impact, meanwhile sees our boy investigating a particularly brutal murder in a small town just outside of San Francisco (wouldn't you know it - Harry has upset the Mayor and been shipped out until the heat has died down). As it turns out, the psycho responsible is a woman on a mission to revenge a gang rape, giving the producers the opportunity to wheel out all the misanthropic old themes once again. However, without Siegal's crackling direction (and Eastwood obviously tiring of the character), Harry's bitch-slapping of everyone from hairy drop-outs to grumpy lesbians is not so much a guilty pleasure as just plain unpleasant.
The Dead Pool is the last in the series and marks its nadir. The plot centres around film director Peter Swan (Liam Neeson), who amuses himself while on set by running a sweepstake on which local celebrities are likely to die. When famous bodies start turning up, Harry is called in and is a bit surprised to learn that his name is on the list too. Slack directing, cameos from Guns'n' Roses, and an early appearance from Jim Carrey, emphasise that this is not so much a thriller as a parody of this once great franchise.
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