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He is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore...
It’s not uncommon for British actors to lend their name to projects in order for them to get off the ground and it’s something Michael Caine has been doing for years and it is perhaps what best characterises Caine now, giving room to showcase his acting talents (we’ll forget Jaws 4). Caine has integrity and a very respectable reputation and it is his very reputation which saves the film.
Michael Caine plays Harry Brown a senior citizen living in a London housing estate. It’s ruled by youths who litter the streets and have nothing better to do than do drugs, vandalise property and harass the elderly. Put simply: they are vile creatures who seek to victimise and terrorise everyone around them, whose behaviour is fuelled by boredom and a desire to do bad. Meanwhile, Harry minds his own business doing his best to avoid them, he makes daily visits to the hospital to visit his dying wife and afterwards goes to the pub to play chess with his only friend Leonard.
Harry’s life takes a turn for the absolute worst when he rushes out in the middle of the night to attend to his wife at the hospital. It’s pouring with rain and Harry passes the tunnel which the youths loiter he decides as usual to take the long route and walks on. He arrives at the hospital to an empty bed. His wife has died and he wasn’t there at her last breath. As if the heartache wasn’t enough, days later Leonard is beaten to death by youths whilst confronting them. Eventually Harry decides enough is enough and he decides to fight crime the yobs.
The most important thing to note is that Harry Brown is a very nasty film; it’s uncompromising, gritty and foul mouthed. The youths are hyperbolic representations commonly found in the tabloids and first feature director Daniel Barber includes scenes of graphic violence, sex and hard drug use. It is all done for one thing: reaction. Whether or not the director wants us to ponder is one thing but the brutal images and behaviour on display will linger on long after.
Harry Brown is a Death Wish for 21st century Britain. Sure, it’s pertinent but that does not make it important because the film is reduced to incendiary and sensationalist underpinnings that prevent us from questioning the boundaries of vigilantes, vengeance and youth culture. Is organised crime, police, parents or society to blame? The film bordered on exploitative towards the climax because it used this subject matter to justify the premise of an OAP vigilante, driven by extreme causes without ever morally exploring the issues. Emily Mortimer’s determined but ineffectual rozzer only seeks to justify Harry’s lethal actions further. The film is morally dubious; it seems to lean too much towards celebrating vigilantism. The climax as well as Harry’s transformation is rather unconvincing as vulnerable Harry becomes Jack Carter with a bus pass.
It’s a shame because the strong first half was bolstered with promise and a true dedication to sensitive issues and individuals that are all too often ignored. Caine really does shine in this role and it is heartbreaking to see such a powerful evocation of fear and loneliness that an old man must face. Harry Brown is well made and captures in grotesque detail the victim’s viewpoint but for this to be taken seriously it needs both sides to be explored; the Ken Loach side is painfully missing.