Harry Brown Review

Published 5 years ago by

harry brown michael caine promo Harry Brown ReviewScreen Rant’s Rob Frappier reviews Harry Brown

How much injustice can one man endure before he takes the law into his own hands? Harry Brown, the big screen debut from director Daniel Barber, seeks to answer this question…with mixed results.

Michael Caine’s Harry Brown is an intensely sympathetic character. A 70-something retiree and ex-marine, Harry spends his days in one of two ways: at the hospital watching over his dying wife, or at the pub playing chess with his best friend Leonard. In short, he is a good man.

Unfortunately, Harry lives in hell, or at least a close approximation of it. A resident of a decaying London housing estate, Harry watches silently from his apartment windows as a violent drug gang terrorizes his community. They openly sell drugs, they regularly beat and murder strangers, and they flaunt their crimes with glee.

Leonard, who also lives on the estate, is tired of living in fear of the gang. He talks to Harry about getting revenge and shows him a bayonet he has begun carrying for protection. Harry, who has seen combat in Northern Ireland, prefers to stay out of it. He has seen violence firsthand and has sworn not to reopen that chapter in his life.

Predictably enough , a few days after talking with Harry, Leonard is found murdered in a pedestrian walkway. The sympathetic Detective Inspector Frampton (Emily Mortimer) visits Harry while investigating the case, but Harry dismisses her condolences. If the police were doing their job in the first place, he suggests, Leonard wouldn’t have taken such drastic measures.

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Harry takes it upon himself to get vengeance for his friend, becoming a one-man vigilante police force in the housing estate. At this point, the movie becomes a fairly conventional revenge drama. Frampton suspects Harry of murder, but is unable to convince her superiors that a pensioner with emphysema is capable of such acts. Frampton’s partner, DS Hicock (Charlie-Creed Miles), agrees with her, but doesn’t care. “Harry Brown is doing us a favor,” he says, giving voice to a thought that all of us have felt at one time or another, whether we’d like to admit it or not.

The best part of this movie is easily Michael Caine’s performance. Comprised almost entirely of deep gazes, long sighs, and the pitiful wheezes of a man who has smoked too many cigarettes for too many years, Caine’s acting is an exercise in subtlety. Amazingly, for a film about a pistol-packing vigilante, this approach works.

Caine makes us believe that he is capable of cold-blooded murder, not because he is action hero tough, but because he is an experienced veteran. Throughout the film, Harry never overplays his hand. He knows his physical limitations and he never exceeds them. This internal consistency is a crafty bit of acting and directing that keeps the film from careening too far over the edge into revenge fantasy.

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Of course, in spite of itself, the film does occasionally veer down this road, which is why it only earns three out of five stars. In my opinion, the most egregious flaw in the movie is the characterization of the gang members. Where Harry is quiet, humble, and decent, the gang members are aggressive, arrogant, and, well, just plain evil. This is the right contrast, but it is written in a way that is overly simplistic and ultimately detrimental to the plot.

A great story comes out of the choices the lead character makes. It is what gives a film a sense of drama and propels the plot forward. In painting his antagonists with such broad strokes, writer Gary Young does his protagonist a disservice. Rather than allowing Harry Brown to make a complex moral decision, the script presents him with enemies so morally bankrupt that he is practically forced into becoming a vigilante.

For example, in one scene, Harry meets with a pair of drug dealers to purchase a gun. Inside of their dankly lit warehouse, we find a girl overdosed on a couch. In the background, a TV is playing a video of the two men raping her while she is unconscious. Now, I don’t want it to appear that I’m advocating murder, but if any two men were ripe for some vigilante justice, these would be the guys and the audience knows as soon the scene starts what’s going to happen to them. In fact, if not for a brilliant piece of acting by Caine the scene would be completely devoid of dramatic tension.

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In many ways, Harry Brown is a riff on the classic Western. Harry is good, the drug dealers are bad, and he’s going to take care of them, plain and simple. For many viewers, that’s enough. Like I said earlier in the review, Michael Caine’s performance is definitely noteworthy and fans of the vigilante genre will likely enjoy his interpretation of what has become more-or-less a stock character.

For me, however, there is a lot more lurking beneath this story that I would have loved to see brought to the surface. What did Harry Brown do during his years in the military that makes him so hesitant to return to violence? What are the socio-economic and political conditions that led to the degradation of the estate? These questions were swept under the rug in order to tell a simpler story. I just don’t think it made for a better story.

Harry Brown opens in the United States today. The film saw its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and was released in the UK on November 11th, 2009.

Our Rating:

3 out of 5

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  1. I loved this movie, Michael Caine is a fantastic actor, and he carries this film very well. I'd even go to say I liked it more than Gran Torino.

  2. I really liked this film. Caine was beyond excellent in it. But my favourite thing connected to this, I was walking through Leicester Square after the premiere, and I literally bumped into the very gorgeous Gemma Arterton. Delicious.

  3. Great performance by Michael Caine (pretty much par for the course for him). I disagree a little with your reservations, although I understand where you are coming from. He does speak a little about his experiences after he shoots one of the drug dealers, and its pretty grim stuff. Also the broad representations of the thugs as “just evil” I think reflects the perception of people like the Harry Brown character, a basically decent person who just can't understand or abide these others indulging such wanton violence. While there could have been some shades of gray thrown in there, I don't think it was necessary to the film. Agreed, it could have been marginally better in that regard, but I think it works well nevertheless.

  4. Excellent.
    When I first saw this trailer I knew I had to be in line to see this.
    Now to those who have seen it, is Caine back to this Get Carter mode here? Somewhat?

  5. Thanks for your comment. I do agree that the film is worth watching, particularly if you're a fan of Michael Caine, but I think the movie works so hard to be serious and important that it fails to deliver a compelling narrative. In a way, it is almost TOO grim.

    I would guess that the director wanted to tell a story that reflects his personal beliefs, namely that vigilantism is acceptable if no one else is willing to step up. I don't necessarily believe that myself, and I would have a liked the film to challenge my beliefs in a more realistic way.

    That being said, I'd be interested in seeing the film again at some point to crystallize my feelings.

  6. I have only seen it once myself, maybe I will slide over more to your side when I see it again…

  7. I must say this is a very bad review. I am always annoyed by 'reviewers' who don;t understand the difference between reviewing a film and summarising it. You've basically given away most of the plot points, and spoiled the movie for anyone who hasn;t seen it (including me).

    Anybody can recite the sumamry of the movie- a good review draws out the mood, the feel and critiques the plot and technical construction without providing spoilers.

    Reviewer Fail.

  8. I'm going to have to disagree with you Etrigan. As someone who also hasn't seen the movie, I find the review helpful. (What's that? Oh yeah, you don't speak for everyone who hasn't seen it.) I don't think any unpredictable plot points were given away, and I think he did an excellent job of summing up the mood and feel. Now I have a better idea of what to expect. I love Michael Caine, great acting, and movies about vigilante justice, but I'm not a huge fan of gritty more realistic movies. I probably will wait to rent this one. [So, thanks, Rob for saving me $10.]

  9. We Need an army of Harry Browns, Harry Calahans, TJ Hookers, Gran Torinos, Death Wish, the country is going to hell! Far too many scumbags in this country breeding like filthy rats

    • TJ Hooker? Seriously?

  10. I kind-of agree with the OP, but from a shocking beginning (the violence really is explicit but it’s the context and realism of the violence that is more shocking than the gore) and some great initial scenes with Caine, I was expecting the main character to be presented with some more subtle moral choices than was actually the case.

    I think it was a missed opportunity.

  11. Can anyone explain to me who killed Sid, the bar-owner? What was that device? Thank you.

    • Two modern day rifles with laser scopes.

      • It was most likely the police backup that Emily Mortimer’s character called for – why didn’t she call the ambulance on that radio?

        Also, it says on Wiki that the bar owner, Sid, ordered Leonard’s murder and admits it to Harry Brown. What the heck? I didn’t get that at all, did anyone else?

        What a cesspool that neighborhood is.

        Great movie.

  12. This is easily one of my favorite films, the subtlety of performance combined with the action of a revenge thriller really works for me. I enjoy the villains because while they are predictably evil, that is how some of them are in reality.

    According to the commentary, they state that the film makers even hired the “real deal” in smaller parts of the film. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know. However, I don’t think the gang’s behavior is exaggerated because as the review shares, Brown doesn’t want to kill anyone. Not at first. It takes an almost cliched level of evil to push him so far. But the sickness that remains, people have that evil, people do behave that way.

    Personally, I love the shot where the gun/drug dealer smokes from his own pistol. The character remains so quiet and calm, it brings back the intensity. Most drug user bad guy types are erratic and supposedly unpredictable, but that particular villain, his calm intensity makes him more terrifying then the gents that killed Brown’s friend.

    The only part of this review I respectively disagree with is the cut and dry disliking of the villains.