Review: Harry Brown
PLOT: Harry Brown (Michael Caine) is an elderly widower living in a gang infested slum. A former soldier, once stationed in Ulster during “The Troubles”, Brown now lives quietly, and tries to get by the best he can. When his best friend is savagely beaten to death by a group of gang-bangers, who are soon turned free thanks to police bureaucracy, Brown takes the law into his own hands, and starts cutting a swath through the underworld with his own brand of vigilante justice.
REVIEW: HARRY BROWN has one of the most incredible, and disturbing opening scenes I've seen in a long time. It shows a gang initiation captured on a cell phone camera, where the inducted youth is forced to smoke crack, is then savagely beaten, and later takes off on a drug fueled binge through the city. It concludes with the young man callously shooting and killing a young mother, out for a stroll in the park with her baby. From that point on, HARRY BROWN had me by the balls, and didn't let go until the end credits rolled.
I can't believe what a hard-core film HARRY BROWN turned out to be. The trailers made it look like another GRAN TORINO, but in that film, Eastwood never actually killed anyone. Caine's Brown doesn't play quite so nice. I'd say the film I was most reminded of is probably DEATH WISH, with this having all the grit of the first installment of that series (but luckily none of the cheese of the latter, Cannon produced sequels).
This is the feature directorial debut of Daniel Barber, who was nominated for an Oscar for his short film, THE TONTO WOMAN, adapted from an Elmore Leonard story. He brings the same intensity that he brought to that short with his feature debut, and it's obvious that the guy really knows how to direct a lean, mean crime flick, reminiscent of the best seventies action flicks. Of course, the film is helped immeasurably by the fact that it's got Michael Caine, one of the most iconic living actors, in the titular role.
Back in his younger days, in between his more acclaimed films, Caine used to regularly churn out action flicks like THE BLACK WINDMILL, THE MARSEILLES CONTRACT, and the classic GET CARTER, and in some ways this feels like a throwback to those films. However, this is far from a retread as Caine's neither playing a spy, or an underworld hitman a la Carter. Instead, he's a kind, lonely old man who whiles away the days playing chess with his pal, essentially waiting for the day that he'll pass on and reunite with his wife and daughter (who, it's revealed, died as an infant). He doesn't want to hurt anyone, but eventually his own morality gets the better of him, and he's really left with no choice but to deal with the psychopaths that killed his friend, and will likely kill others unless Brown takes them down. Imagine a more realistic, elderly version of Liam Neeson in TAKEN, and you've more or less got the idea.
One thing you won't get in HARRY BROWN, is shades of grey. For me anyways, it's clear that Brown, while undoubtedly a killer, is still the good guy. Everyone he kills has it coming in a big way, and whenever he gets the chance to help someone, he does. There's a knockout scene about forty minutes into the film where Harry goes to buy some weapons from a local dealer. You get the idea that Harry would be just as happy to pay for his weapons and walk away, but when it's revealed that the guy is keeping a young woman as his drugged up sex slave, Brown deals with him in a particularly brutal fashion (involving an old military bayonet).
Supporting Caine is the always exceptional Emily Mortimer, as a sympathetic police lieutenant, who's the only one that suspects the string of dead gangsters might lead back to the kindly old gentlemen she interviewed earlier on. As far as the villains go, basically all we get are a series of one note psychopaths but they feel realistic, which is pretty frightening if you ask me. A last minute reveal of the gang's mastermind is a tad clichéd, but it still more or less works, and doesn't detract from the film too much.
Sadly, it looks like HARRY BROWN's getting a pretty small scale North American theatrical release, which is pretty sad, as this is not something that should only play the art-house. It's lean and mean, and something that will be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys a good gritty action flick or thriller. Director Barber's a guy to look out for, as he shows some real skill behind the camera, and seems to effortlessly throw together a taut thriller, the likes of which I haven't seen in awhile. It never feels gratuitous or over the top, but at the same time packs a wallop, and brings to mind old-time revenge/action flicks like ROLLING THUNDER, CHARLEY VARRICK, and any number of the better Charles Bronson vehicles. This is definitely a must see.