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Eastwood, Alone, Earns that Second Star...
on July 5, 2002
Clint Eastwood suits up for his fifth appearance as San Francisco Homicide Detective "Dirty Harry" Callahan, in this final installment of the popular action/crime series that began in 1972. Those involved with any successful franchise, of course, are usually able to discern when the game has been played out and the end is nigh, and audiences can sense it, too; and at that juncture, it is not out of character for those on either side of the coin to expect something special for that final exit-- a last, grand hurrah, as it were. And sometimes, it works; T.V.'s "Seinfeld," for example, did it right. On the other hand, after the final season of "Remington Steele," it was obvious even to the casual observer that it was allowed to go on one season too many. And, unfortunately, "The Dead Pool," directed by Buddy Van Horn, falls into the latter category. Since it first hit the big screen in 1988, to the present, even after years of video shelf life, it's obvious that this fifth offering of the "Dirty Harry" chronicles was just one too many.
Harry Callahan (Eastwood), after being instrumental in putting away a particularly notorious crime boss, has become something of a "media" star, and the department, naturally, wants to capitalize on some good press. But Harry, naturally, wants no part of it; the last thing he cares about is an "image" or a "profile." In any event, there's real work to be done-- during a murder investigation on a movie set, he's uncovered evidence of a potentially deadly game that's being played in certain circles. Each of the players has their own list of high profile "celebrities" from all walks of life, and the winner of the game is the one whose celebrities expire first, from natural causes-- or otherwise. It's a so-called "Dead Pool," and even more disconcerting to Harry is the fact that his name is on the list.
If there is such a thing as a "sure thing," it would be the next sequel in an already successful series like this one. Right out of the chute, it has all of the required elements that spell success: One of the most popular actors in the history of the movies (assuring a huge box-office) recreating an established character that has become an icon of the silver screen. But somebody should have reminded the filmmakers that there would be some legitimately high expectations for this one. Unfortunately, these "filmmakers" were thinking with their wallets rather than their brains going into this project. And it shows.
One of the major problems is the story itself, credited to Durk Pearson, Sandy Shakioucus and Steve Sharon, with screenplay credit going to Sharon, alone. It's no surprise that this is the only writing credit on their individual resumes. What is a surprise, is that Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink, responsible for the character development in all five "Harry" films (Rita M., in fact, did the polished and incisive screenplay for the original "Dirty Harry"), allowed themselves to be credited on this one at all. This story/plot (such as it is) is weak to begin with, and more over, it's badly written. Add to that the fact that they've entirely abandoned any and all of the nuances that added so much to the previous "Harry" films: The snappy, expected banter between Harry and his superiors, that so succinctly puts Harry's iconoclastic philosophies into perspective while revealing the inept and illogical bureaucratic leanings of the department, for example (here, in fact, Harry's "superiors" have become little more than caricatures of those who preceded them); and their attempt at a catch phrase that would define this particular "Harry" adventure is so anemic it's not worth mentioning here (suffice to say there is nothing even close to a "You have to ask yourself a question, 'do I feel lucky?'" or a "Go ahead, make my day--"). And it's a shame.
Additionally, this film suffers from absolutely dreadful casting. Liam Neeson, as director Peter Swann, is barely tolerable; Patricia Clarkson lacks the spunk, looks and charisma needed to bring reporter Samantha Walker to life; Michael Currie, as Captain Donnelly, and Michael Goodwin, as Lt. Ackerman are laughably ineffective; Evan C. Kim, as Harry's new partner, Al Quan, shouldn't have made it past the audition; and David Hunt, as Harlan Rook, is the Woody Allen of cinematic psycho killers. Rarely will you find a big-budget film that is so miscast.
The fate of this film was decided, however, when stuntman Buddy Van Horn was slipped into the director's chair. Don Siegel, Ted Post and James Fargo were successful with the first three of the series, and Eastwood himself directed and made "Sudden Impact" a success. And he should have continued on in that capacity for this film. Van Horn may be a stuntman's stuntman, but being as objective as possible, he simply did not know how to make this material work. Drawing upon his roots, apparently, the best he could muster was to stage an ersatz "Bullitt" car chase involving a remote controlled toy car, including restaging (intentionally??) the famous Bullitt "spin-out" into the camera-- with the toy car! Van Horn's real failure, however, is manifested in the way he treats his characters as if they are nothing more than objects around which he can stage his action. The film lacks any tension or suspense whatsoever, and he creates about as much menace in his "psycho killer" as Bo Peep had amongst her sheep. And while Eastwood's performance is the high note of the film, Van Horn could have done more to keep his star on task; Callahan is not nearly as "enthusiastic" here, compared to his previous outings.
In the final analysis, the most interesting aspect of "The Dead Pool," is seeing Jim Carrey (billed as "James") in one of his first performances of note, as rock star Johnny Squares. Aside from that, this one just doesn't have the magic.