Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sudden Impact (1983)

Sam Peckinpah, Thou Art Vindicated

directed by Clint Eastwood
starring Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke,
Pat Hingle, Bradford Dillman, Paul Drake

Funny how tastes change. I first saw Sudden Impact as a wee tyke during its initial theatrical run. (Naturally, my mom took me to see it.) And, after Halloween and The Fog and watching William Hurt smash through glass to get some of Kathleen Turner's Body Heat, Sudden Impact became the film I couldn't stop babbling to my confused classmates about between sips of CapriSun. Suddenly, dust colored my E.T. doll and my collection of Hot Wheels — I was too busy playing with the right-wing vigilantism that San Francisco's downest-and-dirtiest cop so unambiguously shook his pom-poms in favor of. I bounded through the house with toy pistol in hand, pulsating with medieval emotions stirred up by the film's climactic boardwalk shootout, blowing away scumbag after scumbag (in actuality, our Siamese cat) in an awesomely orchestrated orgy of exploding squibs and backward-flying stunt doubles. Other kids wanted to be Luke Skywalker or Han Solo? Pfft, other kids were gay. I wanted to be Dirty Harry Callahan, a fucking righteous dispenser of ask-no-questions frontier justice.

Of course, I was a child then. Now, I'm all grown up — a man, alright? And this man has no choice but to grind underfoot the rose-colored shades of childhood nostalgia and publicly admit that the Dirty Harry films — with the exception of the Don Siegel-helmed original — are strictly Shit City. Gabbage.

Mind you, it's not that I suddenly object to all that wiping-out-the-scum-of-society stuff that caused critics to label the Dirty Harry franchise "fascist." Pissing off conservatives takes neither effort nor imagination — time and again, Republican hackles have been raised by the most innocuous things on the planet. Pissing off liberals, though — inducing supposedly well-read college graduates to label you an enemy of social progress — well, that was Inspector Callahan's stock in trade; something much trickier to pull off. If you're, say, Don Siegel or Sam Peckinpah, it probably means you're giving voice to a worldview other than the one held dear by the Hollywood set — and doing so in a matter-of-fact way devoid of condescension or easy moralizing. Refusing to simplify human nature for pampered idiots who never actually rub elbows with the unwashed proletariat they so passionately champion/decry from the perch of their senior-year dissertations and Salon op-ed pieces — yep, that'll get mouths foaming every time.

And it's not that I now object to the violence in these films — hell, I like violence in films. Violence is a needed fantasy, demanded by our own savage breasts and wet dreams of personal retribution against exes and obnoxious neighbors and needle-dick bosses. Sure, Axl Rose told us that "vicarious existence is a fucking waste of time" but let's face it — vicariously plugging a sneering rapist full of .44-caliber holes and foiling asshole bank robbers while tossing off terse one-liners is nothing less than the raging blood inside our collective morning wood. Violence in the right directorial hands is cathartic. Balletic. It's the sauce on the rigatoni, the freckles on the redhead, the guaranteed come shot that makes the guns-and-machismo porn of the action genre worth sitting through — if we're being honest with ourselves.

Thing is, the violence in the Dirty Harry sequels doesn't go far enough — it doesn't resonate. There's no social context for the wave of crime that Harry finds around every corner, in every diner and every bank — a social context that might lend some gravitas to Harry's one-man mission to clean up the streets. If Dirty Harry's world more closely resembled our own, we'd have a supercop as stymied and as troubled by sociopathy and random violence and increasing dehumanization as we are. Flashes of self-doubt — "Am I certain that punk whose sternum I just air-conditioned was the right guy?" "Am I sure I'm not twisting the law to fit some darker psychological purpose of my own?" — would not only render him flesh-and-blood but would mirror our own concerns about the potential that all cops have for abuse of power. His need to wipe out that which bedevils him would be the same impulse that fuels our fantasies of vigilance — those instincts of middle-class keep-me-safe-ism that keep us voting for law-and-order types who promise to build more prisons and put more cops on the street. And then, we might have something to chew on once the credits rolled.

In Sudden Impact, though, the baddies are so carelessly, casually drawn that it's hard to tell whether Eastwood the director wanted to wrap things up so he could hit the golf course by 3 p.m., whether the script was a first draft scribbled on toilet paper between shit-bombs in a men's room on the Warners lot, or whether the actors were just bottom-drawer leftovers from the Bad Guys Casting Co. Even in the real world, our rapists and robbers and pseudo-revolutionaries — however worthy of lifelong imprisonment, castration or a Sundance indie marathon they might be — generally have a personal need to do what they do. They're disgustingly, uncomfortably human; the black-sheep kin that Abe the Accountant has no choice but to acknowledge with a shudder and the shame of an averted gaze. Here, though, their scumminess isn't a feature of their personal derangement or their need to make the world suffer for their drunken-whore mothers and absentee daddies — it's simply setting up those paper targets for Harry to blow holes in. So what do we get? We get a post-Seventies black robber who can't even call Harry "sucka" and make it sound convincing. We get cackling, eye-bulging psychos who cry out "Get the biiiiitch!" and return to rekindle the rape-flame of several years past for no other reason than to conveniently place themselves within Harry's reach. Forget plausibility. Forget motivation. Forget three-dimensionality. Good little boys and girls have come to see the man with the big gun put the bad guys in the dirt, Hollywood, and we don't have time for any of your god-durned fancy-pants complications or ambiguities or moral implications.

Harry lets the Sondra Locke character go once he knows that she's been the one going around blowing the balls off of her former attackers. And the film sanctions this — stupidly. Not because said rapists didn't have some form of retribution coming, but because the film paints using the simplest fucking Crayola colors imaginable and doesn't have the brains or the moral honesty to make us question whether or not there might be the potential for something darker in this woman's psyche. Sudden Impact presents us with two supremely damaged individuals — self-righteous, humorless robots with no friends, no semblance of a normal life spent in the regular company of other human beings. Clearly, these are people who live for the almighty kill, fueled by a messianic attachment to the unquestionable rightness of their beliefs. Basically, either character is about a hair removed from your garden-variety fundamentalist whack-job or abortion-clinic bomber. So low are the film's expectations for its own audience that it figures it can just give us a cardboard killing machine with the slightest wisp of motivation, stamp "hero" on his (or her) forehead, and we'll buy right into it.

In Dirty Harry's world, only two types of characters exist: cardboard cut-outs of American regular-ness whose deaths spur Harry on to his next orgy of violence and scumbags whom Harry must gun down. Harry barely even stops to notice the deaths of his friends and partners — not much longer than it takes for him to pause and scowl. The worst, by far, was Tyne Daly in The Enforcer. Here's a woman who gets gunned down her first week on the job, trying to save a wishy-washy mayor with a bad comb-over from hippie-terrorist kidnappers and all she gets for her trouble is a slight grimace from Harry as he stands rigid over her bullet-riddled body — a grimace so slight it could just as easily have been triggered by shitty reruns of Three's Company or indigestion from too many lunchtime hot dogs.

And poor Albert Popwell. He graduates from foiled bank robber who "gots ta know" in the first film to sadistic pimp who gets blown away in Magnum Force to twitchy sell-out in The Enforcer to the plot device he plays here: Harry's token black buddy who stops by just to get called Sambo by our band of thugs and have his throat slit. Well, how else are we going to nudge Harry toward that big come shot of vengeance that the film's been pumping us up for, right? (Never mind the fact that Harry actually shows more rage at what the pricks did to his still-living bulldog.) Black characters are great in that way — when they're not pimps, G's or dealers, that is. We screenwriters don't have to spend a week taking notes in Compton for "research" — we just tell the audience that Leroy is our hero's best bud, no matter how contrived or unconvincing said friendship may be. When you need to jolt the audience with a bit of tragedy, or show 'em what your villains are capable of without killing any meaningful characters (or adorable pooches), just off the black guy. Works every time.

The end result is the kind of action film that a genuine artist like Sam Peckinpah was accused of making: nihilistic, meaningless violence in service of some vague cinematic "fascism" — essentially, I Spit on Your Grave cleaned up for the Age of Reagan, with the same level of moral intelligence (bad) and none of the tits or all-around sleaze (worse). It's the kind of film that brazenly steals diamonds from the display cases of its betters and figures you won't notice the bits of broken glass inside the ring box — hey! there's Sondra Locke shooting her mirror reflection in post-homicidal disgust just like James Coburn in Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid! how 'bout that climax on an out-of-control merry-go-round just like in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train! Well, here's my come shot — and I can't make this any messier: it's clichéd, underwritten, lamely staged horseshit like Sudden Impact that ultimately destroyed the American action film. Bye bye, Peckinpah and Walter Hill and William Friedkin; hello, Jackasses Who Would Pass Off Ben Affleck As a Bank Robber or Will "Clean Rap" Smith As the Pop-Eared Savior of Humanity.

So Sondra Locke killed those who wronged her and she's morally spotless. What happens when this damaged wreck of a human being decides to shift her definition of what "being wronged" is? What if, years down the road, she ends up in a relationship with a man who tires of her android self-righteousness and dumps her for another woman? What if that, too, is considered grounds for a .38-caliber hole in the family jewels once the label of "abandonment" or "emotional abuse" has been slapped on it? What makes this wronged woman any more righteous in her killing than any other kind of wronged person — is being a victim of rape all it takes?

Would 1983 audiences have been justified, then, for cutting down Warner Bros. execs in cold blood due to this film's rape of their precious two hours?

©2011 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic


BRENT said...

Fuck me!! Don't hold back will you!!!
Good stuff and I do enjoy your...what?...rantings?.. close to the truth views? or what!
I must admit I haven't seen the Dirty Harry movies in many long years and I have just recently been contemplating a re-visit to them all.
The fist one is undoubtedly the best and after your rant..oops!.. I mean review, I fear you are right.
In hindsight the rest of the franchise went down hill, but hey, didn't we once think they were the coolest movies made?!!
Maybe getting older isn't such a good thing as we lose what our younger gave us? Or maybe we can just recognise rubbish better when we see it.
Great review and quite thought provoking. I never thought I'd look at the Dirty Harry movies the way you have now made me do. They were always inviolate to me so damn you for showing me the error of my ways!!!!!!!

The Angry Lurker said...

Good fucking rant that hits the mark practically spot on, maybe Sondra who the idoit married was to become a Dirty harriet heoine outside the law but no this a very flawed movie that did not date very well who until you said it never thought of it as the the death of the action but maybe? Good post.

Shaft said...

It's been a while since I saw the 'Dirty Harry' series, and I only remember the first film clearly, the others are a blur.

Still, I do know I had fun times watching them, even with all the shortcomings.

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