After the credits conclude for the 1973 film, Magnum Force, the “Do I feel lucky?” speech from the 1971 film Dirty Harry is recited while a gun in pointed at the viewer. This done to remind us who ‘Dirty Harry’ is, if by accident you walked in thinking this was The Bridges of Madison County. “A man’s got to know his limitations” is a line uttered twice by Harry Callahan during Force. This is not the big one-liner or the phrase that is fit for a t-shirt much like the infamous “Do I feel lucky?” line from Harry is. The filmmakers of Force are not apologizing for Dirty Harry, but they are taking the time exploring Callahan’s complex moral compass.
The plot of Magnum Force, the second of five films featuring the character of Harry Callahan, is not terrible original. The basic concept has been played out in just about every lousy, tired cop procedural from NCIS to NCIS:LA. A mysterious group of rogue cops are killing criminals who manage to beat the system. That is it; that is the story. You can probably guess how the story ends, it is not hard. Go on, take a guess, if your idea is good enough, NCIS will hire you as a staff writer. Otherwise, you will just end up on shameful and disappointing NCIS:LA.
What makes Force stand out in the series is the film that preceded it: Dirty Harry. Upon its release in 1971, Dirty Harry was taken to task for being everything with American society, a rogue cop who made decisions based on his gut and was no stranger to pulling the trigger frequently and liberally. Callahan’s mission to stop the ‘Scorpio Killer’ in the film knows no bounds as he torture a man after shooting him. The Dirty Harry series is about two characters: ‘Dirty Harry’ and Harry Callahan: “Dirty Harry’ is the wish fulfillment of the officer we wish was on every case. Harry Callahan is a police officers and a human being. Magnum Force is a film about Harry Callahan first and a study of who ‘Dirty Harry’ is second.
Critics of Harry said that the ultra-violence was unethical or necessary, but Magnum Force tries to make sense of Callahan’s actions. The film suggests the differences between Harry and the vigilante police are paper thin and Callahan could be to blame for it. ‘Dirty Harry’ as it turns out, is a hero in the academy, inspiring others to act in a similar way. When he first meets a group of young cops, they all express their admiration for him, one young officer has a modified .44 magnum just like Callahan’s.
Magnum Force was written by Michael Cimino and John Milius, two filmmakers who would have a major impact on American cinema in the latter half of the 1970s and early 1980s, for better or worse. Both men wrote films that would show the cause and effect wanton violence has on individuals. Force‘s looks at these affects in a much more indirect way, as consequences you cannot plan for and cannot predict, in the same way you do not realize how big the mess is until the huge party is over.
The vigilantes kill mobsters and high-end drug lords, but then they also kill low-end dealers dealers and pimps. These rogue cops murder people who are moral decay on San Francisco, but they are also kill everyone associated with them. In one sequence, a vigilante shoots several people at a drug dealer’s pool side simply because they are there. “When police start becoming their own executioners, where’s it gonna end?” Callahan asks the vigilante ringleader, “Pretty soon, you’ll start executing people for jaywalking and executing people for traffic violations.” While Dirty Harry was accused of advocating for fascist authority, Magnum Force seems to be completely contemptuous of it.
Callahan went on to have many other adventures after Force like fighting hippies, defending vengeful women, and stopping mean ol’ Liam Nesson from killing Jim Carry. The series eventually went the way Die Hard did, increasingly bizarre set-pieces and ridiculous villains. Callahan was turned into a super cop, abandoning all lessons that he learned in his prior outings. Perhaps it is a relief that Eastwood refused to return to the roll. A man’s got to know his limitations.