Monday, May 17, 2010

Movie Review: Harry Brown

Harry Brown ***
Directed by:
Daniel Barber.
Written By: Gary Young.
Starring: Michael Caine (Harry Brown), Emily Mortimer (D.I. Alice Frampton), Charlie Creed-Miles (D.S. Terry Hicock), David Bradley (Leonard Attwell), Iain Glen (S.I. Childs), Sean Harris (Stretch), Ben Drew (Noel Winters), Jack O'Connell (Marky), Jamie Downey (Carl), Lee Oakes (Dean), Joseph Gilgun (Kenny), Liam Cunningham (Sid Rourke).

Harry Brown (Michael Caine) lives in one of those neighborhoods where most of the residents are afraid to go out after dark because the gangs are so rampant and violent that you never know what is going to happen. He occasionally watches out his window and sees these youth attacking each other, or innocent bystanders. There is an underground walkway that is too dangerous to go into at any time – not just at night.

Brown is now a pensioner, living out the final years of his life in his London flat, that he shared for years with his wife. But his wife has just succumbed to an illness, and when he visits her grave, we notice another one right next to it – that of a 5 year old girl with the same last name you died in 1973. Brown never mentions his daughter, but the meaning is clear – he is man without a family. His only joy seems to be heading down to the pub in the afternoon and playing chess with his best friend (David Bradley) – who complains bitterly about the gangs in the area, and even shows Brown the bayonet knife he carries with him for protection. Soon Bradley will be killed by the very weapon he took along for protection. The police, led by Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) come to ask questions how his death, but soon the investigation is put on hold for more pressing matters. Brown, the former marine who gave up his violent ways when he married his wife, is incensed. And since he now has no one in his life he cares about, he decides to do something about it.

Harry Brown follows the Death Wish formula pretty well – with the obvious difference being that instead of an intimidating Charles Bronson in his prime, it features Michael Caine – an actor well into his 70s who - although he has played his share of ruthless character (remember Mona Lisa?) – is mainly known for playing good, gentle characters. Unlike Clint Eastwood’s recent Gran Torino, Harry Brown doesn’t muddy itself up with poorly written supporting characters the lead bonds with, and doesn’t feature the main character taking the moral high ground by sacrificing himself for the good of the community. No, Harry Brown is pissed off, and dead set on killing the people responsible for his friend’s death, and the decline of his neighborhood into chaos. In a strange way, I was reminded of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru – one of the best of all films – about a bureaucrat at the end of his life determined to do one good thing before he dies. The character in the Kurosawa film, decides to get a park built in a poor neighborhood for the children to play in. Harry Brown is determined to kill the people who have ruined this poor neighborhood.

The main reason to watch Harry Brown is for Michael Caine’s performance, which was a brilliant piece of casting. We like Caine immediately when he comes on screen, and the director, Daniel Barber, and writer, Gary Young, make us like him even more by showing us his long, lonely daily trek to the hospital to visit his dying wife, and his afternoons in the pub with his friend. Harry Brown seems like a nice guy – a normal grandfather type that we can relate to. By doing this, the filmmakers make it far easier for us to follow Caine down his dark path. The first killing is almost by accident – he doesn’t go looking for a fight, but one finds him, and he emerges victorious. It’s here where the movie really switches gears. The next night, Brown goes to visit some shady people wanting to “do some business” – namely buying some guns. As he descends into their lair, it is like descending into hell – a dark, messy house full of pot plants under harsh lights, and a dank backroom with homemade porn on the screen, and a woman practically dead from drugs on the couch. This isn’t a place we expect to see Caine, and as the scene progresses, we see the gears turn in his head more and more – he wasn’t planning on killing these two, but what the hell, they deserve it.

To say that from there – which is the film’s best scene – the film devolves into shootouts and scenes of torture (or Enhanced Interrogation Techniques if you prefer), would be an understatement, but then again, where is this movie supposed to go? I’m not sure I bought the final confrontation, and the riot it takes place in the middle of, but it is effective nonetheless. And there is the haunting final shot of the film. Does the character walk towards that walkway because it is now safe to do so, or are they doing it because they know it still isn’t, and are looking for a fight? I’m not sure of the answer, but it is a great way to end this superior revenge film.

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