The Dead Pool (1988) — Dirty Harry becomes a cult legend

“Well, personally, I think teaming up with a Chinese American is good for the department’s image.”

Al’s rating: There’s got to be a drinking game in this movie if you look hard enough.

Al’s review: So, I recently found out there are actually five Dirty Harry movies. I didn’t know that, and I’m not quite sure why it matters to me, but it apparently does since I’ve been watching them ever since. I had never seen them before and never really had more than a passing urge to, but, for whatever reason, the knowledge that ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan was not just a one-note cultural speed bump but an actual franchise made me sit up and take notice.

As with most any series that stretches itself to five installments, the quality zigzags pretty wildly from film to film. The first movie (Dirty Harry) is as good as advertised. The second (Magnum Force) is a little darker and a little different, if not quite up to par with the original. The third (The Enforcer) is a giant, cheesy letdown. The fourth (Sudden Impact) has some decent bits, including the ubiquitous “Go ahead, make my day,” sandwiched in between a lot of filler. Like I said, they’re pretty all over the place, but standard cops n’ robbers fare nonetheless.

His fifth and final exploit, The Dead Pool, is something different, though. It starts innocently enough, with a cop and crook and a case that connects them, but things quickly and quietly become a little off-beat. There are actors that we know and love, way back when we didn’t know them and only their mamas loved them. There’s an action sequence involving a regular car being chased by a remote control car. There’s an impromptu musical number.

A realization came to me the more I watched: I wasn’t just slogging through fodder for the Sunday Afternoon Movie; the Dirty Harry people had gone out and made themselves a cult film!

Like all the rest, The Dead Pool starts with Inspector Harry Callahan as miserable as ever. Following the arrest and conviction of mobster Lou Janero, he has been thrown into the public spotlight and is hating every minute of it. He shrugs off the attention as best he can, but after he survives an explosioney assassination attempt by Janero’s men, he becomes more of a celebrity than ever and is hounded mercilessly by the media.

The police department’s PR branch assigns him a new partner, Al Quan (a minority will be good for their image), and put them on a high-profile case investigating the death of rock star Johnny Squares. In the course of his research, Callahan discovers that Squares was listed in The Dead Pool, a macabre pastime indulged by San Francisco’s elite. In the Dead Pool, each player earmarks eight celebrities that they think are the most likely to die by the end of the year, the winner being whoever can count the most corpses. Tasteless? Yes. Harmful? Not usually. But when a second person on the list is found dead a few days later, Harry starts to think someone is taking a more active role in the game. And he’s got to hurry, because he’s on the list, too!

It all sounds like it should go down by the numbers. The ‘police work’ parts aren’t especially riveting, and Harry’s perennial grouchiness gets a little old, though I admit that could just be because I’ve watched five of his films in a row. The action scenes have some fun bits — no one can stare down a bad guy like Clint Eastwood — but are pretty patchy overall, in no small part because their action hero is rapidly approaching sixty.

What really makes this film worth recommending, however, are the little moments of insanity the director allows to creep in here and there. Harry being chased Bullit-style by a toy car with a bomb strapped to it. Harry brandishing a comically large speargun. Liam Neeson hamming it up with one of those god-awful rattail hairdos that someone decided was a fashion statement in the eighties. A full-on “Welcome to the Jungle” dance number by none other than Jim Carrey. It’s more than a little ridiculous, and that’s surprisingly just what Dirty Harry needs.

In a world of cheap knockoffs and endless cookie cutter action sequels, I believe The Dead Pool really is something really special, at least in a ‘What the hell were they thinking?’ sort of way. It’s not a great film, nor is it as horrific as some Harryphiles will lead you to be believe, but it’s fun and it’s different and it’s worth a cheap laugh. I’m not going to tell you to run out and rent it right now, but if you see it Coming Up Next on TBS this weekend, I don’t think you’ll find a better way to spend the afternoon.

Didja notice?

  • Getting out of a car wreck isn’t as easy as it used to be, eh, Clint?
  • Does Peter Swan remind anyone else of Lloyd Kaufman?
  • The Peter Swan movies we see glimpses of throughout the film are “Hotel Satan,” “Shadow of the Dead,” “Without the Devil,” and “Night of the Slasher.”
  • Peter Swan’s dead pool picks are Nolan Cannard, George Cameron, Thomas Stern, Johnny Squares, Molly Fisher, Tony Engedal, Michael Cipriano, and Harry Callahan.
  • Samantha’s Harry Callahan scrapbook includes the headline “Scorpio Killer Captured,” a reference to the original movie?
  • The Gun N’ Roses cameo during Johnny Squares’ funeral?
  • Slash firing the giant speargun?
  • Butcher Hicks is HUGE?
  • What, we’re doing a film with an Asian guy? We better throw some karate in there, quick!
  • Harry knows the criminal is out of bullets and yet decides to open fire anyway?
  • Harry’s big quip is “You’re s— out of luck.” It’s not so different from “Do you feel lucky?”, and yet, somehow I feel like we’re miles away from it.

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