You Wanna Bet?
The Dead Pool
Despite (or because of) a seven year gap between the releases of The Enforcer and Sudden Impact, it certainly seemed like Dirty Harry was back. Any studio would sit up and take notice when a dependable film series that cranked out $40 Mil hauls at the Box Office suddenly turned out a $120 Mil bonanza, but that's exactly what Harry Callahan's fourth adventure managed. Sudden Impact was a massive hit, and audiences wanted more of Harry.
Or, at least, that was the thought. Five years, later, though, the release of the fifth (and so far) final film in the series, The Dead Pool, maybe illustrated that the audiences that had enjoy Harry's films up until then were finally tired of his shtick, or the film series, or both. Or, perhaps, audiences just didn't jive with this fifth film which is, quite frankly, a bad and stupid movie. Like all the Dirty Harry films, there's a bit of the movie where you could see how a decent, real motion picture could have come out of the mess, but this time around the film was too dumb, too ridiculous, to keep audiences invested. It only brought in $37.9 Mil against a $31 Mil budget (more much normal numbers for Harry's films, despite the inflated budget), and that was the end of that, pretty much for good.
It's hard to know just what the filmmakers were thinking this time. The 1980s had ushered in a different breed of action hero: big, muscled, and nearly invincible. Harry had never been that kind of guy, and he worked as a kind of action counter-programming to the steroid-laiden heroes that were dominating the Box Office. Hell, the same year Harry returned one last time we also saw the launch of the Die Hard, which was a very different kind of action film when compared to the Rambos and Commandos that exemplified 1980s action theater. Another Harry adventure could have worked, but the creators here just couldn't nail the tone. It's an oddly cartoonish film that lacked any of the substance and style that made up Harry's better films. This was a dud, and you have to think even the creators knew it, deep down.
The meat of the film picks up quickly once Harry is called to the scene of the apparent overdose of actor Johnny Squares (Jim Carrey). Squares was making a new film with director Peter Swan (Liam Neeson), and at the time it didn't seem like anything was amiss with the death. Squares was a drug user, and he died from an overdose. Case closed. But when an unrelated case reveals a list of names, one that has Squares's name with "RIP" written next to it, Callahan's suspicious are raised.
It seems that the list is actually part of a game director Swan and his vary crew members were playing: a "dead pool". They were betting who would die within the next year, and whoever had the most correct (as in dead) names on their list would win. Despite believing Swan that he had nothing to do with Squares's death, Callahan does suspect foul play. And when more names on the list start dropping, Harry's suspicions are confirmed. Someone is out there, killing people on that dead pool list, and only Harry can find them and bring the murderer to (street) justice.
I don't want to call Harry a product of a bygone era -- even when his first film, Dirty Harry, was released, there was a strong backlash to the idea of a cop taking the law into his own hands -- but it is fair to say that after 17 years, Harry's one-man shtick had gotten tired. Despite early attempts to make Harry a better, softer person, the character eventually returned to his street justice form, and this movie absolutely illustrates that. Harry racks up a solid body count here, killing more random people than even the murderer he's supposed to be chasing. If there's any monster in this film, it's Harry Callahan.
Oddly, this is the one film that really doesn't seem to engage with the idea that Harry's street justice is, you know, bad. He's perfectly happy pulling out his gun and shooting anyone that crosses him, even shooting them in the back after they've dropped their weapon and run away. Coming at this film with modern eyes, it's hard to stomach how many people kills in the name of street justice. Harry is a bad cop, a shoot first and ask questions never kind of "investigator". You can't root for a guy when you think he's the villain.
As for the actual case Harry is supposed to be solving, it's stupid. Just about every clue Harry turns up is a red herring, left there by the killer to draw attention away from him and pin the murders on swan. However, the film doesn't actually establish who the killer is or what his motives may be until the last section of the last act. Up until then he's just a shadowy figure. He's a nonentity, a hidden being that exists only so Harry has someone to shoot at the end of the film. That's his whole role.
There is the potential for a good villain built on the bones of what we're given, mind you. The killer is motivated by a desire for revenge against Swan who, he says, stole his ideas for films. That's solid motivation, and it helps to muddy the waters and make Swan look like a bad guy if it were true. But it's isn't, and when he's finally revealed the killer is just some random crazy guy that the film dismisses almost as quickly as he's revealed. A lackluster climax comes after the killer is revealed, and just like that it's job done, roll credits.
Instead of actual solid character development or plot, we get ridiculous scenes that absolutely feel out of place in a Dirty Harry film. At one point Harry stops a restaurant robbery (because Harry always has to handle a couple of other, minor crimes during his films), and while he's shooting guys left and right his new Chinese-American partner gets to kung fu fight one of the suspects. It's a moment included just so Inspector Al Quan (Evan C. Kim) can show he's Asian because he knows how to fight. It's a moment that feels rather racist, especially considering before that all we know of Quan is that he's Chinese-American. In fact, he never gets any development even after that kung fu fighting scene, meaning he's a shallow character meant to show the film has racial bona fides. If anything, it proves the opposite.
But that's not even has bad and the long and drawn out chase sequence between Harry and an RC car. Yes, this absolutely happens and its just as stupid and silly as it sounds. The RC car has a bomb in it and if Harry stops the car will drive under his vehicle and blow it up. So We get a protracted chase sequence that absolutely tries (and fails) to make an RC car seem dangerous. It's so stupid and it goes on for so long that even despite how over-the-top it was, I got bored with it. That's, really, how I felt about the whole movie, too.
Harry is a character from a different era, one where a little street justice made any character into a hero. It was the era of the Death Wish films along with the Dirty Harry movies, and all of those films were denigrated for glorifying violence... but they also made a bunch of money. That was the 1970s, though, and by the late 1980s that genre of film had run out of gas. By The Dead Pool Harry felt out of place and out of time, tired, silly, and a tad stupid. I don't know if you could have made a good Dirty Harry film in 1988, but certainly this wasn't it.