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.
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.
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.
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.