For action fans, The Godfather isn’t just that legendary movie your dad quotes ad nauseam. Our godfather is “Dirty” Harry Callahan, a man who also speaks in powerful one-liners and makes offers that people can’t refuse. His influence can be seen throughout contemporary action movies: he’s the original cop who plays by his own rules and doesn’t give a hoot what his enemies or superiors say. Sure, it helps that Dirty Harry is portrayed with maximum tough by the great Clint Eastwood, but almost every cliché we love and satirize in cop movies has come as a result of something Dirty Harry did. The character is so influential that fans should take a knee before Dirty Harry and kiss his .44 Magnum as a sign of respect.
When the eighties rolled around, it made perfect sense that Dirty Harry would spawn several other beloved big-screen action heroes who also issued their own rules. These one-liner cops have big attitudes, use wit as a weapon, annoy their superiors, and bend rules to the breaking point. I like to think of this as the Dirty Harry Effect, or, in politico speak, Trickle-down Actionomics. While nearly every wisecracking cop of the last 35 years borrows his attitude from Harry Callahan, the following are three of my favorite Dirty Harry-movie progeny.
Detective Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy), Beverly Hills Cop Series — a.k.a. Funny Dirty Harry
As portrayed by Eddie Murphy, nobody makes being a productive insubordinate more fun or funnier. Axel makes the most dangerous of mission seem like a lark, using charm to disarm. Dirty Harry always seems pissed off, like someone’s given him a parking ticket at a funeral. Axel Foley acts as if he’s just heard a great joke at a cocktail party — after seven or eight drinks. Both officers insist on doing things their own way, which leads to scoldings by their superiors. While Dirty Harry’s reprimanding leads to him getting dirtier, Foley’s chew outs lead to laughs, thanks to the otherworldly anger of Inspector Todd. Foley has the same reckless resourcefulness as Dirty Harry, but, whereas Callahan thrills crowds reaching for his mighty handgun, Eddie Murphy slays with his sarcasm. It was the eighties: stuffing a banana in a tailpipe was funny. And Axel Foley was a lighthearted Dirty Harry with a two-drink minimum.
Sergeant Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), Lethal Weapon Series — a.k.a. Crazy Dirty Harry
What if Harry Callahan had been through the hell of war, lost everyone he loved, and just didn’t care anymore? You’d have Martin Riggs, a late-eighties Dirty Harry with a death wish, played to perfection by Mel Gibson (who, we later learned, might have brought some authentic crazy to the role). Riggs is basically the next logical step for a cop like Dirty Harry: he’s the dangerous, suicidal half of the buddy-cop tandem Riggs and Murtaugh, so crazy he puts everyone in harm’s way to bring the bad guys to justice. But like his movie godfather, Harry Callahan, Riggs is handsome and results oriented, so he gets away with it. Who cares whether he was going to pull the trigger on Murtaugh’s revolver? The job gets done. Also, like Dirty Harry, he carries a signature weapon (the Beretta 92), is a one-man wrecking crew, and draws the wrath and ire of his employers on a regular basis, much to our entertainment. You know what they say: like father, like son.
Officer John McClane (Bruce Willis), Die Hard Series — a.k.a. Large-Scale Dirty Harry
The action-movie pitch that became famous in the early nineties was “It’s Die Hard on a ________” (e.g., “Speed is Die Hard on a bus”), as action extravaganzas taking place in a confined space were all the rage after Die Hard. Fans who know their action movies should think of Die Hard as Dirty Harry in a skyscraper. Think about it: what would Harry Callahan have done had he found himself trapped in a 40-story building with well-armed, intelligent bank robbers holding hostages? Exactly what John McClane did. Disobey orders, throw caution to the wind, and go get ‘em. McClane, above all, is probably the closest thing to Dirty Harry since Clint first asked a punk if he was feeling lucky. The difference was the charm a late-eighties Bruce Willis brought to the table. Willis’s John McClane is the ultimate big-screen smart-ass with a sidearm. He carries himself with a cool similar to Callahan’s, until all hell breaks loose, be it in a skyscraper, airport, or major metropolis. Then it was guns and puns blazing. Dirty Harry is the quintessential eighties anti-hero, and McClane is the poster child of eighties action, excess, and attitude. Those guys would get along really well if they ever met.
If you, like me, consider the eighties the greatest decade for action movies ever, then you must certainly be a fan of Dirty Harry, the grand patriarch of all good cops with bad attitudes. If these rule-breaking law enforcers were real, I’d bet the house that Foley, Riggs, and McClane would all say Police Inspector Callahan was a tremendous influence. Their superiors would probably hate to hear this and subsequently chew them out. Which, as we know and love, is all part of Trickle-down Actionomics.
Nick Stevens, co-host of AMC’s Action Pack (Wednesdays, at 8pm | 7C), tries to make funny about movies, pop culture, and sports as often as possible. He lists John McClane, Batman, and Tom Brady as the people he’d most like to have beers with. For more of his grown-up nonsense, visit his Tumblr page or follow him on Twitter.