The sequel to Dirty Harry (1971). This second installment of the Dirty Harry film series pits Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) against a tough group of gun-wielding vigilante cops. As the criminal body count rises, Harry Callahan must bring these trigger-happy shooters to justice… but these guys carry Magnums too and it won’t be easy!
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After the much-deserved success of Dirty Harry and the popularity of Clint’s Harry Callahan, a sequel was inevitable. A cop thriller allows plenty of space for continuation so long as Dirty Harry lives and the writers can come up with more interesting criminals. In fact, the subject of “the criminal” is precisely the topic of discussion in Magnum Force and rightly so! The character of Harry Callahan took a good deal of undue flack for being "fascist" according to The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael. Magnum Force answers back nicely.
The clever move by the writers was to make Callahan’s adversaries serving cops who are taking the law into their own hands and handing out the death penalty without a trial or jury. These cops reflect the negative opinions that critics like Kael had of Callahan. To some, the image of Callahan tossing his badge into the water was taken as pure defiance of the law system. In truth this is more to do with Harry’s frustration at the law being manipulated by criminals like Scorpio against those fighting for justice. While Harry had saved the bus of children he didn’t forget the poor girl who was assaulted and killed by Scorpio. There are those who the law could not protect. To take it simply as aversion to law is a mistake.
Magnum Force also makes an attempt to explore Harry’s attitude to the opposite sex. In Dirty Harry we get a sense that although Harry is a serious cop he does perhaps have a few unfulfilled sexual urges (certainly when looking through binoculars). Harry’s exchanges with neighbor Sunny (Adele Yoshioka) loosen him up a bit: “What does a girl have to do to go to bed with you?” This lightens up Clint’s tough, dedicated cop and ultimately makes him more accessible… essentially more like us!
The distinction that Magnum Force draws between Callahan and the vigilante cop Davis is that one believes in innocent until proven guilty and the other in guilty until proven innocent. In fact, one could argue that Davis and his team go further towards guilty and so must be exterminated. Davis sees criminals as vermin and his group as merely exterminators eradicating them. This value system is clearly a reflection of Nazi fascism; the impossibly tidy uniform and expressionless face of Davis shows you the potential dark side of law enforcement. Magnum Force asks the question: “how far is too far?”
The magnificent shoot out at the end sees Callahan take out his Magnum-totting rivals one by one! After the early pistol competition we’ve been waiting to see Harry go up against Davis and his team for justice and for pure entertainment value. The whole seen nicely answers the question of: “how far is too far?” Like Dirty Harry, Magnum Force allows Harry to have the last word and Clint delivers another classic Callahan quote: “A man's got to know his limitations.” This is precisely the problem with the vigilante cops – they don’t appreciate their limits as lawmen and go too far in the quest for an absolute justice that simply does not exist.
While Magnum Force will always stand in the shadow of the unbeatable Dirty Harry, the film is a solid cop thriller that deserves its place on the mantle with in this genre. Plus, Clint Eastwood is yet again brilliant throughout!