** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Buddy Van Horn

Written by Steve Sharon

With Clint Eastwood, Patricia Clarkson, and Liam Neeson.

If Clint Eastwood seems a little bored in The Dead Pool, the fifth outing for the flinty San Francisco detective Dirty Harry Callahan, perhaps he has a right to be. It has been a mighty busy time for the retiring mayor of Carmel, California, who has starred in 31 films and directed 12 since he burst onto the silver screen 21 years ago in A Fistful of Dollars. Since taking a year off in 1981, he has starred in seven films, directing five of them.

This year, in addition to starring in The Dead Pool, Eastwood directed Bird, a 2-hour-and-43 minute biopic of jazz musician Charlie Parker that he has wanted to make for a long time. The Parker picture was difficult to make and may have consumed most of his interest, given the evidence of this latest Dirty Harry adventure. For what most distinguishes The Dead Pool, after its customarily slick action and characteristically laconic Eastwood performance, is a curious combination of self-consciousness and self-parody. For the first time since Eastwood started appearing in films produced by his own company, Malpaso Productions, the star seems to be just going by the numbers.

In The Dead Pool we find inspector Dirty Harry Callahan involved in a complicated series of murders that take place during the filming of a low-budget horror flick. After the death of one of the stars, it is discovered that the film’s director, Peter Swan (Liam Neeson), is a member of a betting pool in which the participants bet on which prominent celebrities will die within a year. The dead star was on the director’s list, and when another name is crossed off under suspicious circumstances, Swan becomes the number one suspect. Dirty Harry decides he doesn’t buy that theory and goes on looking for the real killer–still finding time to tangle with extraneous Mafia hit men (hired by a mob boss Harry puts away), a beautiful TV reporter, and assorted free-lance creeps.

Judged purely as a technical exercise, The Dead Pool is one of the more accomplished films of the year. Buddy Van Horn, a longtime stunt coordinator and second-unit director, directed the chases and gunfights with the flair one expects from a veteran Hollywood action specialist. Van Horn’s only other directing jobs have been the two Eastwood comedies Every Which Way but Loose and Any Which Way You Can, but he has discarded the loose, spacious jauntiness he came up with for them. Of course, Dirty Harry requires a darker palette than those relatively sunny outings, but Van Horn has sacrificed a dusty, realistic optimism without having found a tonal replacement. The Dead Pool does have a neon-lit moodiness at first, but that is owed mostly to Jack Green’s polished nighttime cinematography. Van Horn seems unable to provide proper atmospheric touches in the daytime scenes, and his muscular matter-of-factness clashes with the essentially bleak Dirty Harry universe.

Since Don Siegel directed the first one back in 1971, Dirty Harry films have revolved around a simple premise. In a world threatened by unchecked criminal appetites, the only real protection can come from an equally violent and dangerous source. Like most of Siegel’s lawmen, Dirty Harry–an iconoclast who has trouble fitting into the rationalized structure of a police department and, by implication, society at large–is much more like his crooked enemies than his ostensible allies and colleagues. He has to break the rules, he has to act like a criminal to catch or, preferably, kill a criminal. What gives the series added flavor–and lifts it far above the general run of contemporary thrillers–is that no one is more aware of this dangerous contradiction than Harry himself. Even if he never talks about it, it is obvious from his demeanor. Economical in word and gesture, he is a walking, barely talking illustration of repression, a man under rigid self-control. And that self-control is tinged with fear, for Harry always walks alone, knowing that any likely companion is doomed to be victimized by violence.

After making two efficient but slightly schematic variations on the original themes (Magnum Force [1973] and The Enforcer [1976]), Eastwood directed his first Dirty Harry picture in 1983. Sudden Impact was the most extreme and hysterical of the series and perhaps the keystone of Eastwood’s directorial efforts. In that film, Harry is cast adrift in a society composed almost entirely of sociopaths, his job being to somehow head off a female version of himself, a woman bent on vengeance without the sanction of the law to justify her actions (in this way Eastwood recalls John Ford’s work in My Darling Clementine, another action film about the difference between justice and revenge).

If the Dirty Harry series was following an ever-darkening pattern of psychosocial hysteria, that path has been blocked here. Harry’s conflicts with his superiors are much more comic than before. Some of the repeated dramatic motifs–particularly the investiture of Harry’s new partner–are just run-throughs, barely connected to the main action. Even the required tag line (this time it’s “You’re shit out of luck”; I don’t think Reagan will use this one) isn’t very effective.

The weirdest moment of comedy comes in a chase scene. The killer is using remote-controlled model cars as bombs and when Harry sees one coming at his car, he tears off on a wild chase up and down San Francisco’s hills. Van Horn films the little model with the same camera angles as he does the life-size cars, so when we see Harry’s car jump over a hill at a dramatically low angle, it is soon followed by the pint-sized version. It is amusing enough–at least the first couple of times–but it is virtually impossible for the movie to reassert any seriousness afterward.

Worse than the self-parody, however, is the self-consciousness. The suspect director, Swan, is clearly a straw man for Eastwood’s notions about cinema’s function in society, with Harry and Swan bantering about what should and should not be shown on the screen. Eastwood–who has the final say over what goes into all his films–doesn’t let the discussions get out of hand; they are mercifully brief. But social comment tends to be the last refuge of an exhausted series (see Superman IV, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, etc), and it is distressing to see Eastwood turn to facile pop sociology in place of murkier but more profound explorations of character–explorations whose implications touch upon sociology anyway.

Harry’s love interest is also a director of sorts, Samantha Clark (Patricia Clarkson), a TV reporter. Appearing as she does with a cameraman at her side, she at least looks like a director, and when she confronts a potential suicide (with an undercover Harry at her side) she defuses his threat by telling him that she won’t put him on TV. In spite of a twist that may or may not be a joke (by this time the film’s tone is such a ragged mixture of solemnity and facetiousness that it is hard to tell), the scene is yet another indication that Eastwood doesn’t trust his material to communicate his intentions.

If Eastwood is bored with Dirty Harry, it is too soon to infer that he has become bored in general with action-film making. After all, 1986’s Heartbreak Ridge–a war film that is an in-depth study of brutal idealism and the nature of loyalty–is as good as anything Eastwood has done in front of or behind the camera. It may be that having heard the siren call of art (Bird won a prize at Cannes, and the French have always been fond of telling Eastwood that Americans do not sufficiently appreciate him), Eastwood might feel a temporary estrangement from his earlier work. The Dead Pool is not a bad film–not at all. There are probably more moments of genuine suspense in its first half hour than in all of Fatal Attraction, Someone to Watch Over Me, and The Untouchables combined. It is perfectly adequate, in fact. It is just that adequate should not be good enough for Clint Eastwood.