A film review by Craig J. Koban October 8, 2010


2010, PG, 102 mins.


Harry Brown: Michael Caine / Frampton: Emily Mortimer / Hicock: Charlie Creed-Miles / 
Noel Winters: Ben Drew

Directed by Daniel Barber / Written by Gary Young.

HARRY BROWN contains a great lead performance and solid direction that I admired, but framing those positive attributes is a woefully perfunctory and cliché ridden script that is so feebly on auto-pilot that it felt more like the product of a PC screenwriting program than something penned by a human hand.   Here is a film that showcases Michael Caine as an actor with masterful grasp of subtlety and nuance at the top of his game and a first-time filmmaker that – at least in the opening sections of the film – displays a real refinement for how calmly restrained and patiently shot and executed his scenes are executed.  Alas, all of this is for naught because the underlining screenplay for HARRY BROWN is cut from the same pedestrian everyman-vigilante-revenge-thriller material that we have all seen countless times before.   

The script follows an old man that is driven to personal action when he feels that the proper authorities are not doing what they should to stop rampant crime.   Of course, this seemingly ordinary and calm spoken citizen is turned, by his own volition, into a vengeance craving, gun-touting vigilante from hell that is the proverbial worst nightmare to the immoral targets of his obsession.  Does all of this sound remotely familiar?  Well, it should, because HARRY BROWN copiously borrows from sources like DEATH WISH and, to a lesser extent, GRAN TORINO so slavishly that it constitutes plagiarism.  Even worse is that HARRY BROWN takes itself far, far too seriously to be an easily digestible piece of nostalgic exploitation filmmaking.  Where the film fails, I think, is that it has virtually nothing to say about the bloody retribution and killing spree that its anti-hero engages in throughout the film; all it does is invite us in to cheer on the slaughter without much contemplation.  If the film was more thoughtful with this material than I would have found it more compelling.  Regrettably, HARRY BROWN is just cheaply sensationalistic and crassly derivative, which is a shame considering the talent on board. 

The film does opening with an absolutely sensational sequence:  Shot with a loose and casual aesthetic on what appears to be cell phone cameras, were are introduced to an apparent gang initiation where a young South Londoner is forced to take illicit drugs and then is shown joyriding with his hoodlum friend on a motorcycle.  The pair careen through parkways, harassing any innocent person that they come across, until them come up to a mother walking her infant during which one accidentally shoots her dead.  As the pair flee on their bike they are abruptly struck by an oncoming truck and are killed instantly.  It is a startling p.o.v. scene of uncommon power, which effectively hooks viewers into the film wondering what is to come next. 

That scene is followed by a series of calmly realized and observational moments that focus on the title character.  We are introduced to Harry Brown, and Dirty Harry he ain’t: He’s an widowed Northern Ireland veteran living in a apartment housing estate that is rapidly descending into hellish youth crime.   He is a lonely and somewhat introverted man that tries to be indifferent to the chaos that surrounds his home on a daily basis.  From the windows of his high rise he witnesses pedestrians being ruthlessly beaten and mugged, car break-ins that occur at a staggering rate, and some dark underground and foreboding tunnels that seem very uninviting with their graffiti and law breaking occupants.  This is life for Harry, and try as he must, he tries to deal with it the best he can. 

He is a man without much family or friends: his wife is slowly dying at a nearby hospital and he has no children to speak of and what remains of his days are spent visiting the local pub run by Sid (Liam Cunningham) where he plays chess with his only real buddy, Leonard (David Bradley).   Just when life could not get any darker for Harry, he is faced with two calamitous tragedies.  Firstly, he fails to get to the hospital in time to see his wife before she dies because the only adequate shortcut to get there is populated by a local gang.  Secondly, Leonard confides in Harry that he has had enough of the younger and immoral criminal element in their neighborhood and secretly reveals to him that the next time he crosses paths with them he will defend himself.  Harry learns a few days later from a well-meaning police detective (played in a nice and quietly compassionate performance by Emily Mortimer) that Leonard has been brutally killed by a local gang. 

This is the straw that broke the camel’s back for Harry, who now views the justice system as too slow and leisurely with dealing with the uncontrolled and systemic violence that pollutes the streets.  Harry becomes a clandestine street vigilante that uses his training as a member of the Royal Marines (which is revealed in many of the film’s half-hearted expositional dialogue) and takes it upon himself to rid the streets of the criminal vermin once and for all with the same methods that he used against the IRA decades ago.  Harry is not the same battled-hardened and dexterous soldier that he used to be (he’s in his 70’s and suffers from emphysema), but he does not let his advancing years stop him for enacting the type of justice that he feels the authorities are failing at. 

Daniel Barber’s rookie directorial effort here shows him as a filmmaker of promise:  The aforementioned opening sequence, as stated, is exhilarating on a primal visceral level, and I really liked the way he radically changes tonal gears with the delicate moderation and care he uses to display Harry Brown’s apartment life.  He lingers on well-established and composed shots of the character as he goes through the daily grind of getting up and prepping for the day, which also highlights the wonderful eye of cinematographer Martin Ruhe.  Barber also creates some scenes of palpable tension, such as the case with a midway point scene where Harry is trying to purchase black market weapons at marijuana grown op that builds to a level of fidgety anxiety and intensity.  This director has a good eye for detail, composition and pacing.   

Then, of course, we have Michael Caine and, outwardly at least, he hardly seems to be cut from the same cloth as a younger Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson, but many viewers may forget that his early career involved him playing tough guys in films like GET CARTER and the HARRY PALMER.  With those memories in tow it's not hard to buy Caine as a soulful, wounded, and determined purveyor of law and order.  He brings his characteristic poise, stature, and quietly empowered dignity here that he does with so many roles, but I especially liked how he had the perseverance to play up to his character's (and his own) age.  The temptation here would have been to play Harry Brown as an faultless human killing machine that has not lost much of his stamina or mojo, but I appreciated how Caine presents him as a somewhat frail and awkward anti-hero that knows his obvious physical limitations.   

Yet, for as rock solid as Caine is here, his performance seems utterly wasted within the relentlessly mechanical, predictable, and contrived script.  Lots of things are curiously never explained (like, for example, why would a war veteran pensioner and a man that seems fairly well off financially as Harry choose to and continue to live in what appears to be a raging hell-hole?).   The screenplay also offers up a series of unsurprising scenes of Harry enacting his revenge on various members of the criminal gangs and then culminates in a third act – involving a full scale gang riot and a plot twist involving one key character that can be seen from a mile away – that feels like it was ripped from an entirely different film altogether.  

What is perhaps HARRY BROWN’s worst sin is that it’s only admirable on an exploitative bloodlust level than anything else, which seems a bit disingenuous to the somber tone the film takes.  The film essentially is expounding a message that any run of the mill and sickly widower that has been spurred by crime can lift himself up, violently dispatch with the villains that have directly and indirectly damaged him, and then walk away free as a bird and without any ethical or legal baggage.  There’s a shot near the end of the film where the shabby and dreary tunnel that was once home to crooks, thieves, rapists, and murderers that, in turn, impeded Harry to get to his wife at the hospital in time is now a perfectly cleaned up and safe for every innocent persona to trek through…thanks solely to Harry’s brief murderous spree.  The film’s commentary on the lightning fast ability for vigilante justice to both cure all social ills and immediately renew a neighborhood is laughably shortsighted and a bit repugnant.   One would assume that more criminals would spawn after some have been eradicated...right?

If HARRY BROWN were done as a cheap, tawdry, and low-rent drive-in exploitation picture than I would have been able to more willingly embrace, but it parades around thinking that it's contemplative with its themes when all its concerned with is its character seeking urban justice by painting the streets with the brain matter of his victims.   HARRY BROWN is lurid for the sake of garnering manipulative shock value and not much else, which is ultimately an alarming waste of Caine’s deceptively stalwart efforts. 

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