MOVIE REVIEW : 'Dirty' Harry Adds Splash to 'Dead Pool'

I know what you're thinkin': Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell the truth, in all this excitement. . . .

--"Dirty" Harry Callahan

Nobody squints like Clint, and in "The Dead Pool" (citywide), fifth of the Eastwood "Dirty Harry" series, our man once again squints up a storm.

Harry, or Clint, squints threateningly at another outgunned gang of restaurant robbers. He squints bitterly at his pompous San Francisco Police Department superiors. He squints seductively at another liberated Ms. with peekaboo blonde bangs--not Sondra Locke, but Patricia Clarkson as an inquisitive TV reporter.

He squints meanly at the Mafia torpedoes on his tail, and sympathetically at his Asian-American partner Quan (Korean actor Evan Kim)--even when Quan tells horrible jokes. He squints suspiciously at his main suspect, horror-movie director Peter Swan (Liam Neeson), and he squints in disbelief at the gruesome welter of serial killings and psychopathology dumped outlandishly on his caseload.

Descending gingerly into another backlit cesspool of urban slime, slam-banging cars, quiche-eating liberals and .44 magnum sexuality, Harry once again emerges bitterly--and squintingly--triumphant.

So does Eastwood. The voice may be more gravelly, the hair receding and dustier, and it may be stretching the bounds of belief to imagine him, at 57, ducking hot lead in a glass elevator, harpooning psychos and wasting bandits with the elan of a farm boy bopping milk bottles at the county fair. But Eastwood's charisma remains rock-solid, smoky-soft, a pleasure to watch. His mixture of coiled tension, brutal wisecracks, incongruously sweet gallantry, preternatural wariness and wry whispering irony is still in force.

The movie is something else again. Along with the 1976 "Enforcer," "The Dead Pool" is among the weakest of the entire "Dirty Harry" series. With its stylized story-line and almost styleless direction, it sometimes resembles a juggling act with sledgehammers.

In the movie, cult director Swan--a sub-Wes Craven, mini-George Romero goremeister, who runs a betting pool predicting celebrity deaths--may have inspired a string of grisly killings, or may be committing them himself. All the people in his pool bets are dying off, and the last person on the list is Harry himself.

At bottom, this movie is an action fable laid over a long, flip commentary on media responsibility. Does Swan stimulate his audiences to pathology and violence? Does TV journalism encourage crime by sensationalizing its coverage? Harry tips the message: He wants nothing to do with his own department-sponsored media hype, but he lends a chivalrous hand to winsome TV reporter Clarkson.

But, though Eastwood's acting suggests a moral center, the story has little. It often bends into the usual young-screenwriter parade of TV gags. Since the murder victims include a heavy-metal rocker, a TV talk-show host and a female movie critic, writer Steve Sharon almost seems to be taking his own revenge against MTV, Phil Donahue and movie reviewers in general ("I give this murder an 8," Quan comments over a bloody corpse, a "joke" that deserves a 0). Typically, Sharon indicts journalists more than society; another example of killing the bad-news bearer.

This script, shallow as it is, might have worked if the movie had the panache and dynamism of Don Siegel's 1971 original or Eastwood's own "Sudden Impact." But Eastwood, for mysterious, possibly economic reasons, has not worked with a first-rate established director--other than himself--since Siegel's "Escape From Alcatraz" in 1979. He doesn't hire his action-movie peers or bring back the legendary older directors or spend much time seeking out younger talents--as he once did with John Milius or Michael Cimino. "Dead Pool" director Buddy Van Horn, like "The Enforcer's" James Fargo, is another old Malpaso teammate, elevated, not too happily, to the main chair.

Van Horn was the second-unit action director on most of Eastwood's movies since 1968's "Coogan's Bluff"--a good recommendation. But his non-action scenes here, as in his previous "Any Which Way You Can," lack zest and depth. "The Dead Pool" (MPAA-rated R for language and violence) is snazzier than "Which Way," with film noir lighting by Jack Green in the Bruce Surtees manner. But Van Horn's groupings, frames and pacing are often mechanical, dead as the pool. This movie doesn't really breathe, and unlike the ones Eastwood directs himself, its rhythm seems off.

Paradoxically, it's only in the second-unit scenes, directed by Van Horn himself, that the movie comes alive. The tongue-in-cheek parody here of the "Bullitt" hilltop chase, with a toy car in deadly pursuit, is "Dead Pool's" humorous high point. Other than that, you're left with a string of brutal zaps and zingers, enlivened by the misanthropic intensity of Neeson's performance and, of course, by Eastwood himself: one of the last great, genuine, long-haul movie stars. Luckily you can't miss him--not even if you squint.

'THE DEAD POOL'

A Warner Bros. presentation of a Malpaso production. Producer David Valdes. Director Buddy Van Horn. Script Steve Sharon. Music Lalo Schifrin. Production design Edward C. Carfagno. Camera Jack Green. Editor Ron Spang. With Clint Eastwood, Patricia Clarkson, Liam Neeson, Evan Kim, David Hunt, Michael Currie.

Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.

MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).

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