MAGNUM FORCE is one of my favorite sequels of all time, and serves as a perfect example of how to make sequels more about story and less about repetition.
Too many sequels, of course, simply attempt to regurgitate the previous film, and the primary way they try to make your experience better is to simply give your more of whatever it is they think you liked the first time.
I was worried that MAGNUM FORCE would simply give us more guns, more one-liners, more people getting shot by Clint Eastwood. To a certain extent, the film does that, but what’s so impressive about MAGNUM is that the story here is built off the story in DIRTY HARRY and forces Inspector Harry Callahan (Eastwood) to confront fellow cops who think they can make a difference by stepping outside of the system.
It’s a bold move and one I doubt many films today would make as MAGNUM runs the risk of alienating those who saw Callahan’s anti-system individualism in a heroic light. MAGNUM takes Callahan from the individual who rejects the system to one who defends it.
At the end of DIRTY HARRY, tosses his badge into the water, symbolizing his rejection of the system he has been sworn to uphold, on the grounds that a systemic failure has put the rights of the criminal over the rights of the victim. As MAGNUM FORCE opens, we see that his rejection of the badge was only temporary. He’s still a cop, though he’s been assigned to Stakeout duty by Lieutenant Briggs (Hal Holbrook), which is designed to keep him off the streets and away from criminals he might shoot. Eventually, as the body count in the city begins to rise, Briggs has to call Callahan in to help with the investigation, and that’s when Callahan ends up defending the system he so dislikes.
Deep in the film, after Briggs has been revealed as the leader of a group of rogue, rookie cops and he has Callahan at gunpoint, he tells Callahan: “You’re a good cop, Harry. You had a chance to join my team, but you decided to stick with the system.”
Callahan grunts back: “Briggs, I hate the goddamn system! But until someone comes along with changes that make sense, I’ll stick with it.”
The key difference for Callahan between his actions in DIRTY HARRY (when he killed a criminal) and the actions of the rogue cops in MAGNUM FORCE is that Harry waited for the system to break down and fail the victims before he killed Scorpio, while in this film the cops are killing people prior to any significant breakdown. Scorpio committed crimes, got arrested, and was subsequently released, while the criminals here may have been in and out of the system in the past, but there is no clear systemic collapse here to justify the actions of the cops.
There’s also a sense of subterfuge here that casts the rogue cops in a negative light. Scorpio knew Callahan was coming for him, and Callahan didn’t hide his final attack. In MAGNUM, however, the cops use subterfuge afforded them as cops to get close to their targets to kill them at close range. The cops pull their victims over as if it’s a routine traffic stop and then pump them full of bullets. Importantly, MAGNUM doesn’t have the cops shoot innocent victims to turn us against them, but rather is willing to have a little moral complexity in the film and forces Callahan to confront his actions with Scorpio.
Still, the film has Harry remind us that he hates the system, too, even though he’s its biggest defender this time around.
The rogue cops are a group of combat vets who have gone through the police academy together. Callahan’s partner Early Smith (Felton Perry) tells him that this set of rookies “came through the Academy after me. They stick together like flypaper, you know? Everybody thought they were queer for each other,” to which Callahan replies, “If the rest of you could shoot like them, I wouldn’t care if the whole damn department was queer.”
There’s a nice cool-in-hindsight aspect to the rookie cops as they’re played by actors who went on to have solid careers: David Soul, Tim Mattheson, Robert Urich, and John C. McGinley. Actually, the fourth cop is played by Kip Niven, who has gone on to have a pretty solid career, too, but it’s not a big part and every time he was on screen I kept trying to figure out if it was McGinley or not, until I remembered I could just look it up on my phone. Other than Soul, the cops don’t have a whole lot of face time (even during the big action sequence at the end it’s hard to differentiate them because they’re wearing their helmeted outfits befitting bike cops), but it’s an effective unit.
MAGNUM FORCE also humanizes Callahan; he’s not just a driven cop here. We see him at the house of a fellow cop’s wife to check in on her, we see a picture of his deceased wife, we see him hook up with his downstairs neighbor, and we get a greater sense of humor. One of the best exchanges of the film comes between Callahan and another neighbor. Harry has detected a bomb in his mailbox and he’s unscrewing the face plate to get at it when another tenant gets all over him for doing it.
“I’ll call the police,” he threatens meekly.
“I am the police,” Harry grumbles back.
MAGNUM FORCE is definitely a bigger film, giving the audience more of what it liked the first time around, but it also gives us things we didn’t see the first time, and while Harry Callahan was a stand-in for every cop in America in DIRTY HARRY, in MAGNUM he becomes his own man. It’s a bit ironic that in the film where he’s less the individualistic gunslinger he also becomes a more well-rounded individual, but MAGNUM FORCE continually challenges Harry’s character and the result is a superior film.