Movie review: ‘Magnum Force’

Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” (click here for my review) premiered on Dec. 21, 1971, to mixed reviews. It was a delight with every single Eastwood fan as well as the law-and-order crowd, but it took a generation for it to be recognized as having been seminal in the world of crime in cinema. To date, Eastwood hasn’t received the notice he should have for “Dirty Harry” and you’ll find a solid job from him in the sequel “Magnum Force.” It is almost as good as the original and certainly better than the other three pieces of dreck that followed. “Magnum Force” turns introspective about too much of a police state and is in some ways as relevant today as it was the day of its release two generations ago.

‘Magnum Force’
(1973; 124 minutes; rated R; directed by Ted Post and starring Clint Eastwood, Hal Holbrook and Mitchell Ryan)

‘DIRTY HARRY’ DOESN’T DISCRIMINATE IN FAVOR OF COPS

(NOTE: I expanded this review with some trivia and opinion and the updating of links on Oct. 21, 2018. I further expanded the review with additional trivia and updated links on July 6, 2019.)

Clint Eastwood rolled right along after his hit “Dirty Harry” in 1971 with two westerns in the next two years (“Joe Kidd” – click here for my review – and “High Plains Drifter”) and at then at the end of 1973 he came out with the “Dirty Harry” sequel “Magnum Force” with what would become his customary Christmastime opening. In an interesting trivia note, Suzanne Somers has an uncredited part – topless!

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It would go on to be one of the top grossing films of the year and “Magnum Force” is nearly the equal of the original – and that’s saying something when the benchmark is set as high as with “Dirty Harry.” The rest of the “Dirty Harry” franchise isn’t as good as the first two, but they’re … ah, well, somewhat watchable.

In “Magnum Force,” Eastwood reprises his role as “Detective ’Dirty’ Harry Callahan” who is off the San Francisco homicide squad at the beginning because of an ongoing feud with his by-the-book, straight-laced boss Hal Holbrook, who plays “Lt. Neil Briggs.” He’s soon back on because someone’s killing criminals across San Francisco and no one can figure it out and the victims are tough guys from the top of the mob right down to street pimps. You know exactly who they’ll need to solve this one.

Of course, Eastwood plows his way to the real answer: It is cops taking on a mission to rid society of nasty criminals. However, he first believes it’s a friend of his (Mitchell Ryan playing “Patrolman Charles ‘Charlie’ McCoy”) but comes to find it’s a band of rookie motorcycle cops led by a shadowy command-level officer. He then has to take care of things himself. So, what else was new in “Dirty Harry’s” world?

Let’s take a look at the top of the principal cast:

  • Now a four-time Oscar winner and five-time nominee, Eastwood remains Eastwood here: stoic, heroic and with little patience for the brass and regulations. It’s Eastwood at his best since he’s doing what comes natural. My favorite Eastwood film is “Kelly’s Heroes” (click here for my review) and not far behind is “Where Eagles Dare” (click here for my review) and my final favorite Eastwood flick and his best western is “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (click here for my review). However, Eastwood’s iconic character also evolves when you see him have a relationship (the casting of an Asian woman for this role came from fan letters sent to Eastwood by Asian women, according to IMDb.com), struggle with helping Ryan who’s dealing with his own demons and finally an expansion of his personal philosophy about police work and society (yes, “Dirty Harry” has a philosophy). Clint’s CV is too extensive to list here, so, I’ll let you click here …
  • An Oscar nominee and four-time Primetime Emmy winner and six-time Emmy nominee, Holbrook as “Briggs” is the big bad guy here and controls the killer cops. He does a good work in this role and his accent makes his snide, condescending or commanding comments even more effective and he’s very good in the showdown talk with Eastwood. Holbrook’s career doesn’t have one style of character since he’s been on everything from TV’s “Designing Women” and “Evening Shade” to films such as “Wall Street” and it has spanned seven decades.
  • Ryan’s “Charlie McCoy” is a cop having come apart and is falling deeper and deeper into despair and angry frustration. He’s lost his family and ultimately dies at the hands of one of the bad cops. Ryan’s short screen time is punctuated with high-tension and his frustration oozes out of him like smoke of dry ice. Clint could have improved a good film by having more time for Ryan in front of the camera. It’s a good job by Ryan here and he’s also been in “Lethal Weapon” and my second-favorite of his (after “Magnum Force”): “Grosse Point Blank” with John Cusack and Minnie Driver (click here for my review). Plus, Ryan was the butt of Jim Carrey’s scathingly honest description of partners in a law firm in “Liar Liar” (click here for my review).

The four young motorcycle officers who are the new-wave crime busters are very good and early in their careers. They are:

  • David Soul, who plays “Officer John Davis,” is the cold, cool sharpshooter who bests Eastwood on the gun range (but there’s a reason for this – Eastwood wants a slug from Soul’s gun for comparison to the killer’s). Soul does good work here and he’s also been on TV’s “Starsky and Hutch” as well as the very scary TV movie “Salem’s Lot” about vampires (click here for my review).
  • A two-time Primetime Emmy nominee, Tim Matheson plays “Officer Phillip Sweet” and is the one “sacrificed” in a raid on mobsters. Matheson, who would make a big mark five years later as “Eric ‘Otter’ Stratton” in “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” does a good, purposeful job here. His worst role came in a stinker of a film called “Up the Creek” (click here for my review) but one of his most fun after “Animal House” was in “A Very Brady Sequel.” Both of Matheson’s nominations were for “The West Wing.”
  • A two-time Golden Globe nominee (not for this one), Robert Urich plays “Officer Michael Grimes” and, like his fellow supporting actors, does a solid job but nothing really remarkable. Urich earned his nominations for TV’s “Vega$” and forged a career mostly on TV (including “The Love Boat” – click here for my look at that iconic series) and a most wonderful turn in the little-remembered (but exceptionally great) “Turk 182!” – click here for my review. Urich died in 2002 at 55 of cancer.
  • Kip Niven plays “Officer Red Astrachan” and is the least noticed of all the good-bad guys. It’s difficult to get a handle on his ability here because his is the smallest of a group of mostly small roles. Niven (no, not related to David Niven) is best known for his role on TV’s “Alice” and has also been mostly on TV but in films, too, such as “Damnation Alley.” He died in May 2019 at 73 of a heart attack.

Other cast members of note:

  • A Golden Globe nominee (obviously not for this one), Suzanne Somers appears uncredited here as “pool girl.” It’s one of, if not the earliest, and only nude scenes on the big screen by Somers as she takes off her top in the pool (see more about Somers’ posing nude for Playboy in cast notes at the bottom of this review). “Magnum Force” is her first film released after she was the mysterious blonde in the T-Bird in “American Graffiti.” Somers was also on a variety of TV shows and is most famous and received her nomination as “Chrissy Snow” on TV’s “Three’s Company.” I liked here in the very first episode of TV’s kitschy “The Love Boat” (click here for my look at that wonderful, iconic series). She was also “Woman” in “Bullitt” with Steve McQueen five years before “Magnum Force” (click here for my review of that one).
  • Albert Popwell, who plays “Pimp” and is executed by one of the vengeful cops, has been both a good guy and bad guy in “Dirty Harry” flicks. He was in all the “Dirty Harry” movies except “The Dead Pool” and was a record executive in a small role in “The Buddy Holly Story.” He died at 72 in 1999 following surgery.
  • Felton Perry plays Eastwood’s partner, “Det. Early Smith,” and is solid as he just follows in his partner’s wake. Perry doesn’t get a much room to explore his character, but by being just solid makes a nice mark. His is a doomed character (as are many here) and he’s also been in “Dumb and Dumber” and the “RoboCop” franchise. Perry was also in “The Towering Inferno” that was released the year after “Magnum Force.”

In addition to the evolution of the main character, “Magnum Force” is also interesting because at the time “Dirty Harry” had energized the law-and-order set with a cop brutally combating crime.

Here, though, the lesson about justice is different. Eastwood not only takes on the bad guys, but the real bad guys are the good guys convinced they’re doing right by doing bad things – namely murder. He has a great showdown talk with the young studs in the parking garage of his apartment building (during filming, according to IMDb.com, as the cyclists pulled out they each crashed in turn outside of camera range and Eastwood didn’t even blink).

Eastwood’s missive about the ultimate problem of cops being society’s judge, jury and executioner, much less citizens taking things into their own hands is pretty good and offers a conservative character’s balance to the issue.

The film also has nice conventional action and those scenes are punctuated with drama instead of special effects, especially in the aircraft carrier scene at the end where two of the bad guys search for Eastwood.

Magnum Force” was the sixth ranked film at the U.S. box office for films released in 1973 (its premiere was Dec. 25 and part of the total came from sales in 1974) with $39.6 million in ticket sales, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film was “The Sting” with $156 million. The other films from 1973 that I’ve reviewed are:

Assorted cast and notes (via IMDb.com):

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014, 2018, 2019.
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