Sure, you could be reductive and simplistic and write off Harry Brown as a belated British remake of Death Wish, but ... actually, come to think of it, you wouldn’t be far off the mark if you did.
Of course, the one major advantage the film has is that it stars Michael Caine (or “Sir Michael” as the Brits call him). Caine plays the titular Mr. Brown, an elderly fellow who lives in a crummy government housing project (or “estate” as the Brits call it) just outside of London. (Interestingly enough, it’s the actual housing estate Caine grew up in.) As the movie gets underway, Harry’s beloved wife passes away after a long illness. With his better half gone, Harry is at a loss. He’s basically just sitting around waiting for the Grim Reaper to reunite him with his loved ones. Harry’s only connection to the world outside his lonely apartment is the occasional trip to the neighborhood pub to play chess with his pal Leonard (David Bradley), a fellow senior citizen (or “old age pensioner” as the Brits call it).
Being old, Harry and Leonard are terrified of teenagers. Here, at least, they have a reason to be. It seems their lawless, graffiti-filled neighborhood is overrun by violent young punks (or “yobs” as the Brits call them). When poor Leonard gets beaten to death by a group of these cockney gangbangers (wow, that sounds filthy), Harry takes the opportunity to get all judge, jury and executioner on everyone in baggy pants and a hoodie (or ... yeah, I guess the Brits call it a hoodie, too).
Turns out, he’s a good man for the job. Harry, you see, is an ex-Royal Marine and apparently saw a lot of blood-spilling action in Northern Ireland. (Typical tough guy, he doesn’t like to talk about it.) So, it’s not long before the secretly badass senior has secured a duffel bag full of illegal handguns. Harry’s plan? To find all the people responsible for Leonard’s death and shoot them in the neck (or thereabouts). OK, so it’s not a very subtle plan. But Harry Brown isn’t a particularly subtle movie.
There are moments when the filmmakers (newbie director Daniel Barber, unknown screenwriter Gary Young) work up a suitably gritty and despairing portrait of modern-day London. The presence of Sir Michael certainly helps, bringing to mind the tough British crime dramas of the ’60s and ’70s (like Mike Hodges’ Get Carter, which also featured Caine). But for every frighteningly realistic moment Harry Brown creates, there are a dozen overly sensational ones to follow. Every single person in this film under the age of 25 is an evil, murdering, drug-dealing rapist. Points for making the villains as nasty and hateful as possible—but squint and they start to look like bad guys from an R-rated episode of “21 Jump Street.” What could have been spare and chilling (think The Limey or Sexy Beast) borders on the seedy, over-the-top exploitation of Paul Schrader’s infamous 1979 film Hardcore.
That isn’t an outright slam, mind you. (I kinda like Hardcore.) For the most part, Harry Brown is a mature, professionally crafted thriller. It just feels like Barber and Young had a hard time nailing down their tone. Is this meant to be painful realism or cartoonish exploitation? Both have their merits. But Harry Brown wavers between the two.
Caine, it doesn’t really need to be noted, is the film’s strongest asset. He gives a flawless performance and helps ground the film in that painful realism category. The man has been in so many movies (150 of ’em, give or take) that his acting comes across as effortless and natural. Caine navigates between emotionally devastated over his wife’s death and instinctually jamming a dagger though a street punk’s heart with nary a ripple. Like Clint Eastwood’s similar (though somewhat more redemptive) Gran Torino, Harry Brown is a film that relies a great deal on the baggage the lead actor carries with him. We spend loads of time here just looking at Michael Caine’s face. It’s the face of a quiet, hard-bitten, salt-of-the-earth dude you should not, under any circumstances, fuck with.
Second billed is Emily Mortimer (Lovely & Amazing, Shutter Island), a fine actress who’s somewhat underused here as a police detective (or “detective inspector” as the Brits call it) stumbling along in the wake of Harry’s righteously indignant killing spree. Harry Brown doesn’t have a lot of time for subplots, and Mortimer’s character is little more than a storytelling necessity.
Within its prescribed genre of revenge thrillers, Harry Brown could hardly be termed a failure. The acting is too good, the setting too ambitious. As a gritty little action film, it’s entertaining, well acted and filled with scum-sucking, tattoo-bearing thugs getting what for from grandpa. When it reaches for political and social relevance, however, it stumbles a bit. Harry Brown’s thin script is too crude a construct to hold up the “society is falling down around our ears” moral. In this genre, the best advice is just to “shoot first and ask questions later.”