Apr 27 2010

Harry Brown

Harry Brown will most likely be described as “British Death Wish with Michael Caine”, and to an extent, it is.  However, Michael Caine’s performance as the titular elderly avenger and the film’s political tone turns the film into something greater than your run-of-the-mill revenge shoot ‘em up.

Harry Brown begins with grainy, cell phone footage of the inclusion of a new gang membe, then cuts to a woman with a stroller getting shot by said gang members.  Right off the bat, the film establishes its intent of brutal realism; you can practically feel the kick of the gun as it shoots down the single mother for the sake of fun and games.

Cut to Harry Brown (Michael Caine), a recently widowed elderly man who lives a life of near-deafening silence in a dumpy neighborhood in South London.  Harry’s only remaining friend Leonard (David Bradley) is terrified by the neighborhood gangs, whereas Harry does what most tend to do: ignore the problem and count on the police to handle it.  When Leonard is found murdered outside his apartment and the police prove themselves useless, Harry decides to investigate on his own.

The revenge film has been a popular genre for years.  Since Death Wish, many have aspired to reach the level of success and legend as Charles Bronson and his brand of street justice.  The formula is often been the same: man (or woman) loses family to gangs, kills gang members, cue the end credits.  Harry Brown avoids the cliché by redefining the genre, and casting an actor who can effortlessly master the role.

The opening credits state, “Michael Caine is Harry Brown,” announcing the film’s intent on where, or in this case, who the film will focus on.  The revenge film formula is a straightforward one; everyone knows what to expect it.  Harry Browndoesn’t try to change the formula, but it focuses on the man rather than on the mission.

Harry’s age is the backbone of the movie.  The loneliness, loss, and lack of purpose that comes with old age motivates Harryto avenge his fallen friend.  It transforms him from a quiet senior citizen to avenging grandfather, angry at what has become the world.  There is something proud and nostalgic about seeing an old timer take up arms to fix the problems of the world he helped build in his youth, and Michael Caine does a perfect job embodying this transformation from start to finish.

Harry Brown’s transformation is best seen when he tracks down a pair of vagabonds to buy a firearm.  The place where the transaction takes place encapsulates all the filth and horrors that have run rampant on the outside world, and coming face to face with it visibly shakes Harry’s constitution.  Yet his disgust at seeing a woman in a heroin-induced coma being used solely for sex makes him take control of the situation, and he takes an unsettling amount of pleasure in doing so.  Beginning to end, it is nothing short of a perfect scene.

Just as Brown settles into his second-wind, the film unfortunately starts to spend too much time with Deputy Inspector Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer), who is more compassionate than her peers, but just as anemic.  The film paints the police as bureaucratic figureheads who do little to prevent crime from running rampant in the streets.  On the occasion that they actually do something, they end up making things even worse for the law-abiding public.  Mortimer doesn’t do a bad job, but the character is set up as a foil for Harry, and frankly, he doesn’t need one.  As a result, the film sacrifices time with our hero in order to instill the audience with a message that is made abundantly clear in the first fifteen minutes.

Whereas most revenge films are about the action, Harry Brown is surprisingly political, and dives head first into England’s own escalating problems with youth gangs and the government’s inability to handle it.  Those of a more liberal persuasion may find themselves horrified by the conservative lens in which the filmmakers present their solution, but the film states its case clearly, and with passion.  After seeing what these young thugs are capable of, not to mention how much they enjoy doing it, it would be difficult for anyone to not want to see them repaid for their crimes in full.

Harry Brown is not a reckless shoot ‘em up.   Rather than concern itself with shootout after shootout, the violence in the film acts as an exclamation point to some serious social themes.  Furthermore, Michael Caine’s spot on performance gives the film a humanity seldom seen in films of this nature, and as a result, the film is sure to resonate with the young and old alike.

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