Unnoticed Injustice: Dirty Harry and the RoboCop reboot

Robocop Dirty HarryWhat a difference 43 years makes. That is the time between the on-screen birth of Harry Callahan, Clint Eastwood’s iconic protagonist in Don Siegel’s brilliantly controversial Dirty Harry (1971), and the screen rebirth of Alex Murphy, freshly minted drone-with-a-heart-of-gold in Jose Padilha’s RoboCop reboot.

Harry, for those who don’t remember, was the American conservative middle class’s wet dream reaction to the social and political upheaval of the 1960s; a Vali who seemed born to avenge the sins of Escobedo and Miranda. This “silent majority” of the American public swept Richard Nixon to victory in 1968 and 1972. They craved a return to law and order after a decade in which they felt the rights of the criminal were elevated above the rights of the victim.

As Harry pursues the sadistic killer Scorpio, he is continually frustrated by a bureaucracy that he feels prevents him from doing his job. The stakes are raised and he begins to bend rules, first disobeying orders, then disobeying laws. The key moment comes at the midpoint, when Harry pursues an injured Scorpio across an empty Kezar Stadium field. Harry shoots Scorpio in his already wounded leg, then, as Scorpio screams for a doctor, proceeds to step on that mangled leg in order to extract information. In simpler terms, he tortures a wounded suspect.

But Harry, to his defenders, had a pretty good reason for engaging in such behaviour. Scorpio, whom he knew to be a murderer (though as yet unconvicted), had kidnapped a 14 year old girl and buried her alive. He had told police she had a limited amount of oxygen. The information Harry was trying to extract was the location of the girl. He was attempting to save a victim from a horrible death. Later, after the girl’s dead body is recovered, Harry’s illegal investigative tactics will permit the murderer to walk. That torture scene is not the only moment of transgression, but it is the most dramatic. It was a key component of an attitude that prompted leading critic Pauline Kael to call the movie “fascist medievalism” and a “right-wing fantasy.” The movie and the review spawned quite the controversy in the early 70s, and it helped cement Eastwood’s status as the leading no-nonsense badass of American cinema.

Dirty Harry RobocopNow consider Alex Murphy, a cuddly teddy bear in a Transformer suit compared to Harry. In the new RoboCop, Alex does the exact same thing that got Harry in so much hot water with the D.A. and Ms. Kael in 1971. Alex steps on an injured suspect, Jerry, in pursuit of information. He grinds his heel down mercilessly as Jerry screams, and he rather quickly gets what he is after. Based on the plot circumstances in the movie, Alex’s action should be far less forgivable. No one’s life is in immediate danger, as it was in Dirty Harry. Jerry is not a deranged murderer, as was Scorpio. He is a rather goofy low level gun runner.

So where is the outrage? Where are the critical descendants of Pauline Kael to point out that such behaviour is not to be cheered and laughed at? It probably surprises no one that there has been nary a word about it. Audiences may have felt a sense of justice at the climax of Dirty Harry but it was a bridled celebration. There was sadness in Harry and, I suspect, in us, that things had gotten so out of hand. There is no such sadness watching Alex Murphy take out a nest of gun-toting bad guys in RoboCop. We no longer seem bothered by the necessity of official brutality.

Obviously the world has changed since we had Harry Callahan to do our dirty work. From the rise in international terrorism to the proliferation of violent media, from school shootings to anonymous cyber-bullying, violence, be it physical or emotional, seems unavoidable. RoboCop may simply be another rather small voice in a public debate that has consumed America since its inception, and which prompted Benjamin Franklin to opine on the relative values of liberty and security. To say that it seems to speak in favour of liberty recalls Cecil B. DeMille’s popular formula “six reels of sin, one reel of virtue.” Because even though we may take away a hint of warning from the new movie, I dare say no one thinks twice about poor, little Jerry, literally trampled by the very manifestation of modern, state-sanctioned, corporate-industrial power.

Where is Pauline Kael when we need her?


Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

12 thoughts on “Unnoticed Injustice: Dirty Harry and the RoboCop reboot

  1. Great piece. While I wasn’t a big fan of P. Kael either (esp. the bizarre vendetta she had on S. Kubrick) I would welcome any critic standing up to a film that goes against the grain of their personal convictions. Nowadays only the worst sort of arthouse miscues (or the more obvious cases of crass commercialism) get even the mildest criticism–everything else is great or pretty good esp. when there’s a name attached to it. Case in point, the free ride given to Martin Scorsese’s contemptible “Wolf of Wall St.” which just serves to glorify and enrich a convicted criminal (Jordan Belfort) who along with others of his kind have performed a sort of financial violence on the world economy that should be in the same conversation as the physical mayhem that gets all our attention

    • Good point Rick. I struggle with it myself. It’s easier to hide behind craft — was it effective filmmaking? — than to express personal opinions about whether what the movies says is right or wrong. I remember having these debates about JFK, but it goes back to Triumph of the Will and earlier. And you can find it still playing out today in the writing of Armond White and the controversy he inspires.

  2. Thank you for the thoughtful piece. “Dirty Harry” changed the face of what was acceptable from an action hero, but his tactics are common place today. Every cop movie is about a loose cannon, a “tough cop who doesn’t play by the rules”. Whatever said cop does is A-OK, as long as justice is served. I remember being somewhat shocked upon seeing Sylvester Stallone’s “Dirty Harry” knock-off “Cobra” back in 1986. Not only does Stallone beat the baddie to a pulp, he hangs him on a meat hook and sends him into an incinerator. This type of violent death soon became common place. Soon, Steven Seagal was extracting information from informants by whacking them in the face with a sock filled with pool balls in “Out for Justice”. What “Robocop” does in his new, bloodless incarnation is particularly mild compared to the rough justice meted out in tough-guy action cinema from the days of “Dirty Harry” on. It’s just about how much more spectacle can be added to that rough justice.

    • Thanks Dave. Harry has had plenty of descendants and none of them have expressed the despair that the original had — not even Harry himself in the largely uninspired sequels. Now, it’s a punch, a quip, and then on to the next scene.

  3. One of the big differences between movies today and those of the late Sixties/early Seventies is the assumption of a reasonably intelligent audience that could follow a plot. You had to pay attention to “Dirty Harry” if you wanted to understand what’s going on. “Robocop,” both the original and the redundantly unnecessary clone, spoon-feed the audience so they’re not distracted from the set-piece, CGI action. (Why make a live-action film in the first place?) These are not movies made by someone with a point of view or something to say. These are cold-blooded commercial products, recycled for no other reason than to suck money from the debit cards of teens with undeveloped sensibilities.

    Get the feeling I’m not impressed?

    • Don’t hold back, Bill. How do you really feel? There are intelligent movies out there but they tend to fall outside the mainstream. I think the period when Dirty Harry came out was rare in American film, maybe an anomaly — when movies with stronger, sometimes controversial POVs were actually being promoted by major studios. The success of movies like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate and Easy Rider confused the hell out studio heads and they gave some freedom to filmmakers to try and recreate that success. But it was a brief period. Pretty soon Jaws and Star Wars would realize never dreamed of profits and movies became formulaic once again. Anyway, that’s my take on American film history.

  4. Excellent post, Jonathan. I have to confess, I’ve never been a fan of Pauline Kael’s writing, but it’s an interesting discussion. A couple of other things that might be worth noting: I think the new Robocop is rated PG-13 in the States, right–rather than the very bloody original, which was R. And Dirty Harry was rated R in the U.S. as well, so there’s an interesting statement on how onscreen violence (especially if it’s relatively blood-squib-less) is perceived today versus the early 1970s. What’s curious is that the scene of Harry stepping on Scorpio’s leg always seems to be cut heavily when shown on TV (unless it’s on one of the pay movie channel); the part where Harry tortures Scorpio to this day is regarded as strong stuff … despite the presence of plenty of violent movies on the networks. Is it a double standard, though? I admit that I think it should always be shown in uncut form, as the torture that Harry metes out provides insight into what kind of person he is … and causes us to ask questions about whether the killer deserves it. As Harry says: “Well, I’m all broken up over that man’s rights.” 😀

    • Thanks for your comments. I’m saddened, though not surprised, to hear that the scene in Dirty Harry is edited on TV. The rapid pullback that ends the scene is one of the best shots in Don Siegel’s rather impressive career. I always think of Kenji Mizoguchi when I watch it. Whereas Mizoguchi’s graceful tilts away from violence speak to a propriety when dealing with certain extremes of human behavior, Siegel’s frantic pullback has always struck me as the very definition of visually-represented madness. Something is breaking in that scene, and whether you applaud it or deride it, you can’t deny it is there. The disappointing thing about Robocop is that it doesn’t really seem to care all that much one way or the other. But that makes it a pretty accurate portrait of America 2014.

  5. Thoughtful stuff Jonathan, and full of insight. From my perspective, on the other side of the Atlantic, I don’t believe that we regarded ‘Dirty Harry’ in the same light, in 1971. It was seen as deliberately over-blown, and had little relevance in a country where police officers were rarely armed. That has changed with time, and the sight of police carrying guns is no longer so unusual here. Suspects are routinely abused in TV dramas, and it is always presented as justifiable, if we ‘know’ the person is guilty. Society is less forgiving, in all aspects.
    As for ‘RoboCop’, the less said, the better…
    Regards from Norfolk, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. I was in London this past May when the tragic killing of Lee Rigby occurred. One of the things that was indelibly stamped on me as an American was the fact that the first police officers on the scene were unarmed, and it wasn’t until the AFOs arrived that the suspects were taken into custody. In America, there would have been heavily armed SWAT teams dispatched immediately. Personally, I wrestle with these questions quite a bit, but I usually come back to this question: Who has the potential to do more damage, a lone criminal, or the state? I think RoboCop wanted to address that question, but it ultimately failed to do so.

      • Jon, I was interested that you mention the Lee Rigby killing. (One of the convicted murders is currently appealing against his sentence, on the grounds that he is a ‘Muslim Soldier’).
        This brought out the issue of violence on TV shown as news, rather than as entertainment, but with the issue sufficiently blurred, by the media frenzy, and the modern trend for camera phones. I wrote this article at the time.
        Who needs ‘fake’ violence in the cinema, when they can get the real stuff on rolling news?
        Regards from England, Pete.

        • I read the piece you wrote Pete. It’s a very heartfelt discussion of something that seems to have spun beyond any reasonable control. Being as ignorant as I am about the way the rest of the world lives (something I share with most Americans), I have to admit being surprised that what you describe is relatively new to the UK. The kind of “reporting” you talk about is standard operating procedure in the USA and has been for well over twenty years. It extends beyond violence to the simple imperative of getting the story first at all costs, regardless of propriety or even accuracy. Here, the convergence of violence and media is most clearly on display, not in movies or video games, but in the coverage of what seems to be our weekly school shooting. There are breathless live feeds, interviews, experts, and outrage. Then, by the next day, we have moved on. We all complain. We all watch. Nothing changes.

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