(United Kingdom, 2009, 97 minutes)
Written by: Gary Young
Directed by: Daniel Barber
Cast: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Charlie Creed-Miles, David Bradley
Director Daniel Barber defines his debut feature “Harry Brown” as a story that “needed to be told”. Star Sir Michael Caine related to the character, an ex-soldier with working class roots appalled by the current state of England’s youth, and did the film as a “warning to British society”. But for all of its supposed urgency, it’s just another tale of a good man Who Can’t Take It Anymore--“Death Wish” with hoodies and chavs…
Ex-marine Harry Brown (Caine) idles away his days in a tenement flat studying chess masters like Bobby Fisher, exiting only to console his dying wife in the hospital. Outside, the grounds are overrun with angry punks of all ages who resort to violence as much for sport as urban survival. After his wife passes way, Harry finds some comfort with his veteran friend Leonard (David Bradley) at the neighborhood pub, where they witness a brazen public drug deal, prompting Len to admit that he carries a bayonet as protection from the crime that’s overrun the city.
When detectives Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles) arrive to inform him of Len’s death from a brutal beating, Harry fears he could well be next and craves justice. He follows dealer Kenny (Joseph Gilgun) to his grow-op under the auspices of purchasing an illegal gun, where he’s introduced to paranoid mastermind Sid (Liam Cunningham), who keeps his girlfriend stoned and becomes increasingly suspicious of Harry’s queries. A gunfight erupts, in which Harry kills them both. He drives the girl to the hospital and drops the drug money in a church donation box.
News of a vigilante panics the authorities, who are plotting a massive raid on the complex. Frampton and Hicock question several young suspects, all of whom are turned loose for lack of evidence, which prompts Harry to even more extreme measures…until things go off the rails with a third act plot twist hardly worthy of your average TV cop show…
Screenwriter Gary Young may have aspired to splash about in the minimalist kitchen sink realism of a filmmaker like Shane Meadows, but this thin, button-pushing scenario doesn’t add a damn thing to what Michael Winner’s “Death Wish” and Phil Karlson’s “Walking Tall” (both 1974) and their respective sequels, rip-offs, and remakes (Lewis Teague’s “Fighting Back”, James Glickenhaus’ “Exterminator” series) explored (and exploited) decades ago. The major twist here is that Harry is nearly an octogenarian, but Charles Bronson was well into his 70s when he starred in the last two “Death Wish” entries, and in last year’s surprise hit “Grand Torino”, 78-year old Clint Eastwood also played a senior war vet driven to vigilantism to protect his dwindling middle-class neighborhood.
But that film at least attempted to give some depth and personalities to its troubled youths, even if it wallowed in caricatures and fell short of “The Wire”. In “Harry Brown”, goons Kenny and Sid are such ridiculously loathsome caricatures--all multiple-piercing, tattoos, rotting teeth, and jaundiced flesh--that they look like they stepped out the casting lineup for the remake of Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser”. Others are typically foul-mouthed rotters who dash about in the dark like Street Thunder from John Carpenter’s original “Assault On Precinct 13”, a film that made no attempt to humanize crime but deliberately presented its gang members as relentless phantoms. There are some tense scenes here and there and the climactic drug raid, which erupts into a fiery tempest of police vs. civilian violence, is well-staged.
Caine, of course, brings more poignancy to material than it deserves. While the actor insists in the press notes that the film doesn’t “glamorize violence”, he contradicts himself in another statement by regarding “Harry Brown” an “urban western”, and he’s not far off. The deck is so heavily stacked in Harry’s favor that to doubt this decrepit good citizen’s crusade for even a second suggests a lack of human blood in one’s veins—there’s about as much moral gray area here as in a Tom Mix two-reeler (the final showdown is in the local saloon), but at only 97 minutes, it’s thankfully not much longer…
©Robert J. Lewis 2009
Sunday, September 13, 2009