The vengeance film is back with a vengeance. So is Michael Caine. In his first starring role since 2007’s “Sleuth” Caine plays the title role in “Harry Brown,” a simple film that centers around an ex-marine who sets out to do what the police can’t do, kill nihilistic teenage thugs. Caine’s work in the film casts a shadow over the whole picture as his acting chops tower over the story telling, proving him to be at the top of his game fifty-four years into his career.
Shot in the very slums that Caine haunted as a young tough, “Harry Brown” casts the actor as an old man who has lost everything but his rage. That rage is directed at the local drug dealing gang that murdered Harry’s best friend in an underpass. When the police can’t make the charges stick this dirty Harry finds his own way of settling the accounts.
The script by Gary Young strives to create a larger context of the problem of street violence in England by showing the adults tasked at nurturing these miscreants as the same type of human waste, just one generation removed. The foster parent of one teen is the drug supplier, while the uncle of another acts as a neighborhood kingpin.
Not that it excuses the behavior of the teen gang, everyone gets their own in the end, but it does put the blame at the feet of the system, an ever present cycle of neglect from the Upper Classes, a.k.a. the powers-that-be. They are represented by Childs (Iain Glen), the puppet police inspector who enforces Draconian ministry policy without a thought to the repercussions it might have on the community.
However there are those that care. Emily Mortimer plays Detective Inspector Alice Frampton, the cop in charge of Harry’s friend’s case. As she finds herself pushed into the middle of the violence in the slums her response is to side with the lay people, namely Harry, who live in fear of the escalating thuggery, though her moral compass is challenged to find that true north as she begins to suspect the nice old victim may in fact be the perpetrator. Thrown in for good measure, as the voice of those willing to express the unspeakable is Detective Terry Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles), the cop who knows all the locals by name, and begins to side with the vigilante. “He’s doing our job for us,” he says.
Though it all comes off a little quaint. Yes, there is a problem in the lower income neighborhoods of London, but the Brownsville section of New York would eat that ghetto for lunch. The gang violence in the good ol’ U.S. of A. is painfully more terrifying than that depicted in Harry Brown, and thus, for American audiences the response is bound to be a unified, “Boo-hoo. You think you’ve got it bad?”
Politics aside “Harry Brown” is not a bad film. The debut feature of Daniel Barber, who was nominated for an Oscar for his short film, “Tonto Woman,” is a solid first outing. He manages to get amazing performances from both Caine and Mortimer, however the picture could have been better if he had left the acting to speak for itself. Instead he layers in a bigger than life orchestral score composed by Ruth Barrett and Martin Phillips that attempts to manipulate the hell out of scenes that could have just stood on their own. In the scene where Brown is confronted by his wife’s death Caine’s powerful, struggling tears are eschewed by the invading score, and I was just distracted away from the little moment.
Though Barber does infuse some scenes with a painful realism that makes the picture at times hard to watch. When Harry goes to a local hood’s flat to procure a firearm I could almost smell the acrid, stale cigarette smoke and heroin induced vomit in the corner. That said the scene comes off as almost “too real,” almost hyper-real; there are a few too many vices floating around, and as such it seems as though Barber is trying a bit too hard to hit home the danger in which Harry has found himself.
All of this is pushed aside by Caine himself, who embodies Harry Brown. For an actor that made the steely, stoic hit man of Jack Carter in “Get Carter” a memorable ass-kicker the vulnerability he displays as Harry Brown is heart wrenching at times. We see hints of that Carter coming out as Brown resorts back into his earlier life as a British Marine, shooting first and not even bother to ask questions later. In the same way that Harry saves his housing project Michael Caine elevates this film; through brute force.
El Luchador Rating: 3 out of 5
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)