There are films that are representative of the times they were made, films that represent a bygone era, and then there are films like SUDDEN IMPACT, in which you can feel the tug of time pulling at the cinematic edges of a film.
It’s been seven years since Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) graced the big screen in the disappointing THE ENFORCER, the longest gap between any two Dirty Harry movies, and Clint Eastwood and the production team spent the time wisely. SUDDEN IMPACT is not as good as the first two films in the franchise, but it is a definite improvement over THE ENFORCER. This is, undoubtedly, a Dirty Harry film. The moral quandary is back after taking a film off and Harry is at his crusty best, an attitude best summed up by one of his superior officers, as he mocks Harry for not adjusting to the times: “Callahan is the one constant in an ever-changing universe.”
What SUDDEN IMPACT does beautifully is to show us that changing world. Sure, we get a classic Dirty Harry scene in a diner where Callahan takes out four thugs in a hail of bullets that, once again, avoids all the innocents, but we get bad guy after bad guy taking a run at Callahan. There’s a general theme of increased lawlessness here, and Director Eastwood lets the narrative slide hard into conventions of the Western. When local Police Chief Lester Jennings (Pat Hingle) warns Callahan that this isn’t his jurisdiction, it serves as the opening of the Western gate for Harry to walk through.
It’s fitting because that’s where Jennifer Spencer (Sondra Locke), the film’s anti-hero has spent the entire film. Years ago, Jennifer and her sister were gang-raped by a group of local thugs in San Paulo, California and now she’s getting her revenge, killing the men and woman who assaulted her one by one. In a Western like Hannie Caulder, this is perfectly acceptable way to handle one’s revenge. In the changing modern world, however, and specifically in a cop film, killing people in this manner is going to land you on the other side of the ledger. By having the top cop in San Paulo throw up a roadblock (his son was one of the rapists), the entire legal system is invalidated and Dirty Harry, Jennifer Spencer, and the rapists can play out their Western drama under dark California skies.
We see the tug of time in ways like this throughout the film. With Eastwood in the director’s chair for the first time in the franchise, there appears to be a tug between his desire to return to the Old West and modern expectations for what the 1980s want out of their action heroes. And make no mistake, this is Eastwood as an action hero. He’s older and less musclebound, obviously, than the other stars of this era (born in 1930, Eastwood was 53 when IMPACT was released), but this film makes concessions to the audience’s desire for one liners and violence. The Dirty Harry franchise has always liked guns, but Callahan gets a bigger gun this time out and is much more prone to one-liners. SUDDEN IMPACT gets its money line when Callahan grumbles, “Go ahead, make my day” for the first time early in the film, but there are other instances when it feels like the film is actively trying to go the one-liner route instead of just telling its story.
The film’s climactic sequence even plays out like a horror movie. The main baddie has captured Jennifer and his two henchman are at his side when they notice a man and his gun in silhouette standing down the walkway from them. These three thugs thought they had killed Callahan earlier in the night after they jumped him, beat the crap out of him, and then dumped his body in the ocean, so Harry’s return is, for them, a return from the dead. Much like Freddy Krueger would stand with his clawed hand down and at his side, Callahan holds his new, bigger gun in the same manner.
After the final rapist has been taken care of (excepting the catatonic rapist that is also Jennings’ son), Jennifer asks Callahan, “What now?” She clearly thinks he’s going to turn her in, but since this is a Western, Callahan comes up with another solution. Jennifer used the same gun in all of her killings, a gun that the main baddie took from her. When his dead body is recovered, that .38 caliber is found on his body and Callahan tells the local cop that ballistics should prove this was the gun used in all of the killings, thus framing this rapist for Jennifer’s crimes.
SUDDEN IMPACT is a very good film and almost returns the franchise to the high level of DIRTY HARRY and MAGNUM FORCE. It would have been nice for Callahan to discover Jennifer’s role in the killings before he slept with her (which is just before the film’s final act gets moving) to add to the moral and philosophical dilemma, but this tired Callahan feels right in this story.