Sudden Impact (United States, 1983)

April 01, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Sudden Impact Poster

Before 1971, Clint Eastwood was known primarily for the long-running TV show Rawhide and his role as The Man With No Name in Sergio Leone's so-called "Spaghetti Westerns." That all changed during this pivotal year in Eastwood's career. In November, his directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, arrived in theaters. One month later, the world was introduced to the iconic part that would re-define Eastwood's acting career: Dirty Harry Callahan. Only once would those two aspects of one of Hollywood's most respected personages intersect - in 1983, when Eastwood made his fourth appearance as Dirty Harry and also sat in the director's chair. The film was Sudden Impact, and it is viewed by many aficionados as the best of the five movies about the hard-nosed, authority-defying San Francisco cop.

The Dirty Harry films follow a formula but, within those constraints, there is room for Eastwood to do some interesting things. Despite commentary to the contrary by some pundits, Dirty Harry is not a political character and the movies are not right-wing propaganda (any more than today's 24 TV program is right-wing propaganda). Sudden Impact, like its predecessors, Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, and The Enforcer, and its successor, The Dead Pool, is less interested in scoring political points than it is keeping audiences thrilled and entertained.

Sudden Impact has Harry on the trail of a serial killer, one for whom he develops a growing sense of kinship and admiration as the film develops. The killer's victims are scumbags - the kinds of people that Harry has spent his entire career trying to remove from the streets. It turns out that the vigilante has a motive and a backstory. Jennifer Spencer (Sondra Locke) was a rape victim. The crime resulted in her sister becoming catatonic and Jennifer developing deep emotional issues. Now, in an act of empowerment and revenge, she has decided to pay back the participants in her victimization by shooting them once in the groin and once in the head. When Harry's investigation brings him closer to Jennifer and away from San Francisco, he comes into contact with a local cop, Chief Jannings (Pat Hingle), who is so belligerent toward "Big City" Harry that he must have something to hide.

Eastwood's direction, like the plot, unfolds in a spare, no-frills manner. The killings are presented almost as stand-alone vignettes connected by strands of exposition. As the film develops, viewers become increasingly invested in Jennifer getting away with her crimes. For Harry, there's a dilemma. As an officer of the law, he's expected to bring her in, but as a man, he agrees with her form of retribution. Of all the Dirty Harry movies, this one comes closest to Death Wish territory. Harry is more of a kin to a vigilante than in any of his other films. And the bad guys are the kinds of people it's a pleasure to see eliminated. (There are flashbacks to italicize how truly repugnant they are.) When Eastwood first accepted the role of Dirty Harry in 1971, no one knew who Stallone or Schwarzenegger were. By the time Sudden Impact reached theaters, they were on their way to becoming the biggest action stars of the '80s. Eastwood was no less macho, but he was cut from a different cloth. His eyes were a more dangerous weapon than his biceps and he could utter a one-liner like no one else. The Dirty Harry series gave us three of Hollywood's most memorable: "But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?" (From Dirty Harry), "Go ahead, make my day." (From Sudden Impact), and "Well, opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one." (From The Dead Pool)

Sudden Impact delivers all the action and violence one expects from a Dirty Harry movie. The plot is not complicated, but it does its job. The film is a collage of Harry moments, from his insubordination and denunciation of his superiors as paper-pushing idiots to his brutal confrontations with street scum. No one knows better than Eastwood what makes Harry work, and it's all here. Of course, the thing that differentiates Harry from his many vigilante/rogue cop counterparts is the sense of wit. On the written page, some of the dialogue is pedestrian, but Eastwood's delivery is perfect. Sometimes, when Harry snaps off a one-liner, you don't know whether to stand up and cheer or burst out laughing, and that's precisely the reaction Eastwood is looking for.

Without Eastwood, there is no movie. One hopes no one will ever decide to remake the Dirty Harry movies because Eastwood's Callahan is as iconic as, say, Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau or Sean Connery's James Bond. Putting anyone other than Eastwood in the role would be like hiring an imposter. The supporting cast in a Dirty Harry movie has never meant much, and this is no exception. Sondra Locke's Jennifer is fairly weak, and the only reason for the actress' appearance is because of her status as Eastwood's then-lover (this was the last of six movies they would make together). Pat Hingle, who would become Commissioner Gordon to Michael Keaton's Batman, has a minor part as the small-town police chief who takes a distinct dislike to Harry.

In its day, Sudden Impact was startling for its unflinching violence and was denounced by some critics as being too brutal. In the intervening years, standards have changed, and there's nothing in the movie that shocks anymore. But, questions of violence aside, Sudden Impact remains a viscerally effective, fast paced thriller. Unlike many of its contemporary cop movies, it avoids the most obvious signs of being dated and its themes about injustice and vigilantism, as thinly as they are spread, remain relevant. Since Eastwood has confirmed that Harry is retired, it's worthwhile to look back on the career of everyone's favorite "dirty" cop, of which Sudden Impact is arguably the most compelling chapter.

Sudden Impact (United States, 1983)

Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 1983-12-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1