Considering that Sudden Impact delivers one of the most memorable lines in movie history, it's surprising how forgettable the rest of it is. Clint Eastwood directed it himself, and had evolved from an enthusiastic layman behind the camera to someone who really knew what he was doing. His best work still lay ahead of him, but he really had a chance to shake things up here. The Dirty Harry franchise had entered the doldrums, with little to say that hadn't been covered by Don Siegel's searing original. And the revamped Ms. .45 script they tailored for this entry could have plunged us into the heart of the franchise: to examine the inherent contradictions of being a vigilante cop and push Siegel's dark meditation to new extremes.
Instead, Eastwood falls back on button-pushing, coating the expected cocktail of blowing bad guys away with a misogynist rape-revenge fantasy that fails to advance the equation in any way. Sudden Impact does what it does effectively enough. Its bad guys are thoroughly slimy, Eastwood snarls his lines with appropriate surliness and the overall pacing keeps us more or less interested throughout. For R-rated mayhem, you could have done much worse on a snowy 1980s day.
And yet it's so much less than the sum of its parts, thanks to a feckless scenario that pushes buttons with no sense of purpose behind it all. Eastwood's Harry arrays himself against the local crime syndicate, who seek to avenge the death of their boss by sending a steady stream of faceless mooks to die horribly at the hands of Harry's signature .44 Magnum (or the ".44 Auto-Mag" as the film's brazen bit of gimmickry has it). Meanwhile, Eastwood's then-squeeze Sondra Locke plays a traumatized rape survivor enacting methodical revenge against the creeps who assaulted her. Harry investigates the killings before being shunted off to the very town where Locke's avenger is restoring a local merry-go-round.
The rape subplot reeks of the kind of valiant protector fantasy that Eastwood indulges in far too often. He shows us the trauma and pain of his female characters in a bit of leering exploitation that justifies our feelings of righteousness when he gets even on their behalf. Yes, she’s blowing them away here. But she's still a victim throughout it all, and Harry's eventual rescue of her only confirms the passive stereotype that he perpetrates with far too many of his female figures onscreen.
Ironically, that very subplot could have made for some interesting fodder in terms of Harry's own problematic relationship with the law. He obviously sympathies with Locke's wounded dove, and ultimately condones her actions in sadly predictable ways, but he doesn't engage the issue beyond the most perfunctory levels. He just lets justice take its course. Kill the bad guys, make sure they suffer, and revel in the smug audience satisfaction that results.
Of course, the Dirty Harry series always indulged in that kind of knee-jerk fantasizing -- often with agreeably guilty-pleasure results -- and with this the fourth film in the series, you can't expect them to deviate from formula too much. We really shouldn't expect Sudden Impact to reach any higher. The "make my day” line alone guarantees it a place in cinematic history, and if you're going to watch someone blow melon-sized holes in human parasites, Eastwood is your man. But considering the caliber of director he can be, and considering that his mentor Don Siegel helmed the original, this feels like a lost opportunity. The first film dared to fully engage with the issues that this one blithely skates over, leaving it with an echo of the ideas it had the chances to do something really special with. If I condemn it for that, it's only because I know what Eastwood can do -- both in front of the camera and behind it. Sudden Impact could have made the medal stand, but opts to become an anonymous also-ran instead.