When the public is terrorized by thugs and the police are ineffective, sometimes one man has to take matters into his own hands by killing a lot of people. That is the basic premise of most vigilante flicks. “Harry Brown” is no different, but it elevates the genre with solid acting and filmmaking while maintaining the requisite gritty edge.
Michael Caine plays the title character, a decorated war veteran and widower who loses his only remaining friend to gang violence. His neighborhood has deteriorated into a ghetto where kids kill for “entertainment,” as Harry puts it. In the opening scene, we see one gang member who gets initiated by being forced to smoke crack; in the following scene, he kills a woman walking her baby through the apartment complex’s park and his buddy captures the incident on his phone for posterity. Harry’s friend, Leonard (David Bradley), is terrified of the gangs and begins carrying his old war bayonet for protection. He gets killed in a tunnel, and Harry is suddenly alone in the world, his wife, daughter, and friend all dead. Two cops played by Emily Mortimer and Charlie Creed-Miles run into a dead end with the case when they are stone-walled by suspects and it is discovered that the murder weapon belongs to the victim. With nothing left to lose, Harry decides to go after the biggest gang one by one, find out what happened, and deliver sweet justice.
What follows is a dark, nasty little genre film filled with satisfying confrontations and violence. There is no heartwarming tale at the core; this is not “Gran Torino” in England. That said, it’s a cut above many of its peers. Not only is it technically well made, but Caine delivers a nuanced and chilling performance. It’s a departure for him, but it’s nothing less than what we’ve come to expect from the actor, and it is always fun to see an established veteran take a chance and play against type. The neighborhood and criminal underworld may seem a little exaggerated, but it lacks even a shred of cheese; this gritty world feels believable and marked by attention to detail. (For example, heroin addicts nod out in mid-sentence, even while being interrogated.) It is brought to life by a moody score perfectly suited to the world and material. The apartment complex where Harry lives could just as easily be the Baltimore towers of “The Wire.”
Not all is right in the world, though. Supporting characters are somewhat underdeveloped, especially the two cops who begin to suspect Harry Brown of doing something about the riff raff. The main gang members are all identifiable, but not much is revealed about them or their criminal enterprise. There are moments where the film strays from Harry’s perspective, but more could have been done with them. It would also be nice to see Harry play some mind games with the gang and mess with their business instead of just creatively killing them.
Some people will be turned off by its ugliness and mean spirit. I didn’t expect to like it after a random woman was killed for no reason in the first five minutes on a phone’s camera, but Caine’s performance along with the sweet revenge scenes pulled me in.
There is also a cool little twist near the end that helps complete the picture of the world, followed by a decent showdown. As for criticisms that the film is too dark, I think they are made by people who don’t necessarily like the genre when it sticks to the basics and offers no redeeming message. Director Daniel Barber and screenwriter Gary Young embrace what makes the genre tick and resonate with fans. If the material isn’t your cup of tea, you have no business watching it. You will feel as out of place as an old man in a gun fight. Fans of the genre with stomachs and nerves of steel as rigid as the title character should relish “Harry Brown,” then probably take a shower.
3.5 out of 5 stars