Michael Caine is such a consummate actor that it’s a major cause of concern to see him in Harry Brown, another hateful vigilante flick the wags in England have already labeled “Dirty Harry Brown” for reasons that are immediately obvious.
Following in the worn avenger footprints of early gut-riddled Clint Eastwood crime melodramas, Charles Bronson in Death Wish and even Jodie Foster in The Brave One, Caine plays the title role—an elderly pensioner who lives in a crumbling old London housing project minding his own business, dividing his time between hospital visits with his ailing wife and chess games at the pub with his only friend, a fellow veteran named Leonard.
Life is uneventful until his wife dies and Leonard falls prey to the warring drug gangs that hang out in a nearby underpass, shooting heroin and harassing seniors. Distraught when the police offer no solution and enraged when they release the thugs who stabbed Leonard, Harry takes the law in his own hands. This is one old geezer it’s better not to mess with. Like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, Harry also happens to be an ex-Marine who spent years battling the IRA in Ulster.
When this rheumy-eyed, stumbling old war veteran goes on a rampage, look out. Or, better still, look the other way. This is not Noël Coward’s London, but a bleak toilet hole overrun with youthful zombies, snarling at authority and collecting lethal weapons like some kids collect video games.
The cops (Iain Glen and a miscast Emily Mortimer, giving her first dull screen performance) are either helpless, complacent or smug. So Harry goes underground to buy an automatic, into a dark subterranean midnight world of predatory human vermin so vile they seem to have been dreamed up by the painter Hieronymus Bosch. Bones shatter, heads are blown away and the population trembles. With a potential monster in every doorway and decent citizens afraid to leave home, the film goes to great lengths to make Harry a hero (“He’s doing us a favor,” says the police inspector), and ultimately becomes a celebration of a vigilante aesthetic. Praise the octogenarian mavericks, it preaches. They’re our only salvation.
It makes for a repellant but not uninteresting panorama of bloody carnage in which Harry, with pistols blazing, rids society of the rats and snakes before they multiply. But encouraging criminal chaos seems morally dubious to me. When the police finally try to crack down, the underworld retaliates, burning down the neighborhood, driving everyone in uniform away in terror and intimidation, and the movie turns surreal. Freshman director Daniel Barber and writer Gary Young insist everything is true—that today’s England is, in fact, worse than anything shown here. But Harry Brown is so deliberately sick and twisted that many scenes fail the credibility test and pessimism reigns throughout.
It must be said that even when it moves from social realism to grotesque sensationalism, the film makes the most of a great actor’s resources. Caine is impeccable in a fastidious performance of contrast and compassion—lonely and subdued at first, ashen-faced with his world in ruins, then hot as a branding iron in the flush of revenge. The ugly stuff in this movie is so over the top that sometimes you are forced to stifle a laugh, but the star always comes through. So good that he even makes you feel sorry for him—he’s the driving force that keeps an otherwise despicable movie alive—and saves the audience from hysterics.