Daniel Barber’s stylish 2009 revenge thriller “Harry Brown” is built upon the foundation that it’s morally just for anyone over the age of sixty to exact their own unique brand of vigilante justice upon those who contribute nothing of consequence to society as a whole. As long as you save at least one police officer’s life during your clandestine adventures, the legal system will gladly cover your tracks and allow you to freely roam the streets with absolutely no strings attached. Whoever said getting older didn’t have its perks has obviously never tried shooting a few drug-addicted inner-city teenagers in the forehead with an illegal firearm. Social Security, here I come.
Unlike Clint Eastwood’s like-minded endeavor “Gran Torino,” “Harry Brown” opts to take a much more violent, straightforward approach to modern-day urban renewal. There are no sacrificial lambs here, and Harry Brown’s emotional attachment to murder and mayhem is surprisingly minimal. It’s the antithesis to Eastwood’s quiet, even-handed drama, and for the most part, the picture’s brutal sensibilities are welcomed. Gory, blood-soaked set pieces abound, and Barber doesn’t shy away from giving these troublesome delinquents exactly what they deserve. Your enjoyment, however, is closely connected to whether or not you agree with Mr. Brown’s highly questionable tactics.
To be perfectly honest, it’s a challenge not to sympathize with Harry. Almost as soon as the guy finishes burying his beloved wife, the former marine learns that a wild pack of local teenage hoodlums have savagely murdered his best friend. Frustrated by the police department’s inability to put these lunatics behind bars for the rest of their lives, Harry makes the decision to clean up this insanely dangerous mess on his own. His adventure is not without peril, as the tension amongst the city’s lower class is almost at a breaking point.
Daniel Barber and cinematographer Martin Ruhe’s vision of London’s crime-ridden ghetto is almost apocalyptic in nature; thugs, junkies, and degenerates run rampant, soiling and destroying anything positive that comes within shouting distance. As such, the colors are murky and dark, the photography stark and, at times, downright ugly. Almost every aspect of the city is broken and worn and weathered, much like the countless characters who inhabit it. This, in turn, makes for a bleak, almost overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere, and it suits this dreary revenge saga extremely well.
The film’s centerpiece, of course, is Michael Caine’s performance. Although the picture is sporty enough to survive on its own, Caine elevates the material to a much higher level. His turn as Harry Brown is surprisingly restrained, giving his sudden, unexpected explosions of violence an incredible amount of impact. And while you may not necessarily agree that popping proverbial caps into maladjusted teenagers is the perfect solution to criminal activity, you can still sympathize with poor Harry’s plight. The balancing act between anti-hero and monster is quite delicate, a testament to Caine’s exceptional abilities as an actor.
Moral dilemmas and a few needless subplots aside, “Harry Brown” is a solid, well-constructed revenge thriller. Stylistically, the film exists somewhere between “Gran Torino” and Pierre Morel’s slick French actioner “Taken,” though its performances are a little more nuanced than its like-minded contemporaries. Caine is, without a doubt, an outstanding actor, and his turn as a heartbroken pensioner with literally nothing left to lose is both strangely affecting and undeniably cool. Daniel Barber’s fiery feature-length debut is nothing short of fantastic, and if nothing else, proves that Michael Caine is still one of the toughest badasses working in cinema today. Even if you’re not quite old enough to yell at the kids crossing through your yard, it’s still highly recommended viewing.
Daniel Barber (director) / Gary Young (screenplay)
CAST: Michael Caine … Harry Brown
Emily Mortimer … Frampton
Iain Glen … Childs
Ben Drew … Noel
Liam Cunningham … Sid
David Bradley … Leonard