Michael Caine: tough guy
Harry BrownDirected by Daniel BarberStarring Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Ben Drew, David BradleyRated R*6*Goes well with: Gran Torino, Death Wish, Walking Tall
There's no justice like angry-mob justice, there's no school like the old school and there's no movie quite like a vigilante movie, in which the angry-mob mentality gets boiled down into one old-school man (it's almost always men) who's forced to take the law into his own hands after the system has failed, justice has not been served and someone close to him has died.
The new Michael Caine movie Harry Brown fits that mold nicely, touching on the same tried-and-true conventions we've seen in everything from the many Death Wish movies to the sorts of films that kicked off Mel Gibson's career, featuring a healthy dose of Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, as well—Caine's character is a senior citizen taking on the violent behavior of his nation's youth. But unlike all of those films, there are no one-liners tossed around in Harry Brown, and there's no joy to be derived as our hero takes down the criminal element. That's part of Harry Brown's triumph and troubles—Harry may be solving crime with a bullet, but he's also contributing to the violence around him.
Harry's a fading old-timer living in a housing project—which the Brits refer to as estates—in Elephant and Castle, the neighborhood Caine himself grew up in. The kids aren't alright on the estate—they're soulless, violent hooligans, led by Noel (musician Ben Drew, aka Plan B, who seethes malevolence here). Harry sees the violence all around him, but he's old and tired, so he just avoids the walking underpass the local gang controls to visit his wife in the hospital, or to get to the pub, where he plays chess with his lone friend, Len (David Bradley).
That attitude doesn't keep the trouble at bay, and it's no surprise when Detectives Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and Hicock (Charlie Miles) come to his door to give him some very bad news. Distraught, Harry tosses several back at the pub and, on his way home, gets mugged by a member of the gang that just killed his friend. That, it turns out, is a bad move. Sure, Harry's old. And slow. And drunk. But he's also a former marine who spent some quality time keeping the peace in Northern Ireland, and even at his advanced age, his muscle memory kicks in. Harry 1, bad guys 0.
After that, he decides to tool up and clean the streets. And, no, he's not nice about it. Kidnapping, torture, murder and arson are all part of Harry's playbook, as he works his way up the criminal food chain. No one is willing to entertain Detective Frampton's belief that the rise in violence is being caused by an aging pensioner who suffers from emphysema, so the cops send in the good squads, resulting in a serious riot that provides cover for Harry's final confrontations.
Harry Brown is the first feature from director Daniel Barber, an accomplished commercial director who's crafted a film that's tense and well-made, featuring a number of sequences that are exceedingly well-crafted. But there is plenty of violence in it, and it's graphic and nasty. This is a grim picture, to be sure, offering no solutions to youth violence other than the business end of a pistol. Sure, the criminal activity in the area drops dramatically after Harry goes to work, but it's a worthy question—does the end justify the means?
Ultimately, you might not care, because Harry Brown begins and ends with Caine, who remains a lion of an actor even in his advanced age. He's flinty as ever and tough as nails, creating a character so sad and lonely and bent up inside that you're more inclined to wince than cheer when he blows away another bad guy. He's the consummate professional, sure, but you can't help but feel that this is slightly personal to him, a homecoming of sorts. In the hands of almost any other actor, Harry Brown would feel purely exploitative. Caine elevates it into something else, though it's hard to decipher exactly what that something else actually is.
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