A vigilante tracks a group of rapists, one by one mercilessly killing them in cold blood. But this time, it’s not “Dirty” Harry Callahan doing the killing – it’s his chick!
Sondra Locke (Clint Eastwood’s real life living-in-sin partner) gets Dirty in SUDDEN IMPACT, as a rape victim on a vendetta against her rapists, who were not convicted due to their connections with the local law. If she could manage just one more emotion than that blank blonde slate, we might even accept her as a morally ambiguous anti-hero. As it is, she ghost-walks through this last of her roles in Eastwood films, then out of his life and cinema entirely…
Detective Harry Callahan (Eastwood) runs across Jennifer Spencer (Locke) when he is pulled off the streets of San Francisco for angering his superiors (no surprise!) and reassigned to San Paulo. His investigations into what seem to be unrelated murders in this small seaside town, lead him to uncovering a deeper mystery (Jennifer’s rape and subsequent vendetta), all while fending off mob guys who are trying to kill him for his part in their godfather’s death, and fending off the hostilities of his local police captain (Pat Hingle, in one of his many roles shouting at Clint Eastwood), who doesn’t want the “big city hotshot” poking his nose into San Paulo business.
So there are many plusses in this movie: Lalo Schifrin’s dynamic score, Harry’s antics against numerous assailants, and let us not forget it was SUDDEN IMPACT that spawned Dirty Harry’s most famous catchphrase, “Go ahead, make my day!” To date, it is the most successful of the five Dirty Harry films. But it is far from the best. Matter of fact, they rank in order of their release dates, DIRTY HARRY (1971) at the top of the pile, then MAGNUM FORCE (1973), THE ENFORCER (1976), SUDDEN IMPACT (1983), and THE DEAD POOL (1988).
Not surprisingly, the best scene in this movie is one of its openers, which launches that catchphrase, and which is directed (by Eastwood himself) and shot like the Harry films of old. We feel that man-musk overtaking our nostrils, those Clint pheromones wending their way into the male parts of our brains making us all bow down to him in female obeisance.
Then SUDDEN IMPACT suddenly loses its impact. When Harry arrives in the small town, the direction and cinematography takes on a flat, small town feel, not conveying that sense of grit, street cred and urgency that the previous three Harry films exuded effortlessly. Watching the car chase between a robber on a motorized trike and Harry in an old folks bus is almost as exciting as watching Sondra Locke attempt a facial expression. And the extras and supporting cast seem to be well aware they are extras and supporting cast.
Maybe Clint was feeling the pressure of directing himself in such an iconic role (up to that point, Harry had been directed by others, including the legendary Don Siegel), and maybe he didn’t want to overblow it, so the movie is understated, slow-moving and self-conscious. Except for a solid Philo Beddoe knuckle duster at the local fishery, Harry’s battles seem vapid and forced.
Jennifer’s rapists are a disparate lot, some of them remorseful, some just leading normal lives trying to forget the past, one of them traumatically affected, and the ringleader Mick (Paul Drake, playing it as close to Andy Robinson’s Scorpio without copyright infringement) totally unremorseful, hanging with the woman who posed for the picture beside the definition of trailer trash in the dictionary, Ray (Audrie Neenan), who aided in the rape, mostly by cackling like the witch-teat she is.
As well as his trusty .44 Magnum (“We’re not gonna let you walk outa here.” “Who’s ‘we,’ sucka?!” “Smith, and Wesson, and me…”) Harry premieres a stylized weapon – the .44 AutoMag, a gun that can apparently shoot through steel. He goes shooting with Albert Popwell (veteran of four Harry films, as various characters), here as Harry’s pal Horace. Both these elements are cool, yet pointless. Much like the character of Dirty Harry was slowly becoming at the time of this film. His message of standing up for justice even in the face of the law was eternal – and all Eastwood’s characters in all his films adhere to that credo – yet the mythos of Dirty Harry was morphing to that of mindless tough guy who would rather kill his problems than wring them through the outmoded and unjust system. Even the script reflects this one-dimensional perception of the character, as his captain growls the reasoning for sending Harry out of town: “People have a nasty habit of getting dead around you.” He wasn’t reassigning Harry for taking down bad guys – Harry was getting the job done there, albeit in unconventional ways – he was relocating Harry due to all the property damage and taxpayer expense that his city was suffering at Harry’s hands in the process of taking down bad guys. In essence, getting Harry out of town for the safety of the townsfolk; considering Harry a blunt instrument that could not use discernment on when to strike, when to walk away. (When in fact, Harry was using discernment in his arrests – but that’s another issue altogether, considering that cops are trained not to use discernment, but to mindlessly apprehend and let the courts/juries decide fates.)
Movie resolves in favor of the rape victim, and bravely holds its vigilante stance, even though the usual idiotic practice of the MPAA is to decree that anyone who commits crimes must pay in some way. Murder is no small thing, and when Jennifer gets away with her murders – even though they were justifiable payback for horrible felonies committed against her in the past – we realize there is some vestige of impact still left in our Harry.