In Harry Brown, Michael Caine plays a vigilante pensioner. That might have been a more memorable title for a movie that pretends to have a social conscience as it exposes London’s current drugs and gang epidemic. It takes a military vet like Caine’s Harry Brown, seeking revenge for an old mate’s murder by a group of thugs, to accomplish what the slick, uninformed police cannot—all the while setting up an action-movie franchise for Caine.
Produced by Matthew Vaughn, the hack responsible for Layer Cake and Kick-Ass, Harry Brown is really just another genre-movie rip-off. It disgraces the social-political atmosphere of British film tradition from Humphrey Jennings to Lindsay Anderson by replacing realism with film-noir excess. First time director Daniel Barber comes from the world of TV commercials, the same insincere training ground as Ridley Scott, but he’s of the David Fincher generation. So instead of making a detailed character-study of old age like The Whisperers, Barber lays on a stylized dystopia that resembles Seven.
This dark, yellow, green, gray England with roving bands of hooligans, ruffians and tattooed, gun-toting pushers and addicts could be called A Clockwork Dinge. Barber’s more interested in making film references than creating a believable context of political decline and social disorder. He repeats Kubrick’s pessimism just as Fincher does, leaving out the absurdist but hyping the art direction. A sequence where Harry tortures two skinny drug dealers takes place in a bizarro-world tenement that features a marijuana orchard along with the usual crack house décor. Barber fixes on a particularly bloody orchard composition where Harry stands over his gunshot victim, gloating about seeing similar wounds during combat.
Turns out Harry’s military duty was in Northern Ireland but any significance between that Occupation and contemporary urban squalor in lost to Barber’s modish set-pieces and Vaughn’s pointless gunplay. There’s no credible sense that war experience affects the way a veteran views the modern world—one of the few interesting points of Eastwood’s Gran Torino. It’s unclear if this vigilante pensioner ever believed in anything but just waited for an opportunity to fight again.
Caine’s a superb actor—nobody sneers with uglier, angrier menace—but his lack of standards has landed him in so many rotten movies that his act-aholic presence is distracting throughout. Caine produces a hollow echo chamber reverberating with the many movies from which Harry Brown was derived. Death Wish echoes first, then Dirty Harry. (Caine taunts a criminal with an Eastwood-like tag line “You forgot to maintain your weapon”). Of course, Gran Torino. Plus this sadistic role also recalls Caine’s ruthlessness in Get Carter and his icy characterization as spy Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File. There’s so much wacky cinephilia in Harry Brown that one grows indifferent to the vague plot involving Emily Mortimer and Charlie Creed-Miles as investigating cops.
Directed by Daniel Barber
Runtime: 102 min.
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