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Harry Brown (2009) ***

April 29, 2010

written by; Gary Young

produced by: Matthew Vaughn, Kris Thykier, Matthew Brown & Keith Bell

directed by: Daniel Barber

Rated R (for strong violence and language throughout, drug use and sexual content)

103 min.

UK release date: November 13, 2009

US release date: April 30, 2010

As I left a recent screening to a movie where the main “action-centric” character was played by a 46 year-old actor, someone I was with mentioned, “Boy, he’s getting old.” She then wondered if that specific actor should continue making films that required such physical demands. For the life of me, I cannot comprehend this outlook and sadly, it’s a pretty common one. I may be in the minority here, but I’m of the mind that a character over forty in an action role (to whatever degree that plays out) is much more interesting than seeing anyone in their teens or twenties go nuts on-screen.

So, many probably won’t buy the new film starring Michael Caine because they may feel he’s way too old but those who think along those lines don’t know Michael Caine. Today’s moviegoers probably only know Caine for his role as Alfred the butler and caretaker of Wayne Manor. They know not of his countless roles where just a cold stare-down from Caine will leave a character with a yellow puddle at their feet. Well, at age 77, Caine delivers his own “Death Wish” role and convincingly shows any naysayer that a guy his age can still serve some well-needed vigilante justice, specifically to a handful of English hoodlums hogging the local underpass.

Caine plays the title character, a widower in South London, who is written off as another codger by the violent youth than run the housing estate he’s lived in all his life in Elephant and Castle.  His only confidant is his friend Leonard (David Bradley, Argus Filch from the “Harry Potter” movies) with whom he plays chess with the local pub each day. Harry has learned to live alongside the rising neighborhood violence while Leonard is living in fear. Already in an emotional state due to the recent loss of his ill sister, Harry is pushed over the edge when Leonard is brutally killed by local kids. Harry wants to know how this happened and turns to his skills as a Northern Ireland marine to get his answers.

Pretty soon, drug and gun dealers wind up dead as we see Harry exact his own form of justice in his hood. Out of suspicion and concern, a local detective (Emily Mortimer) investigating the death of Leonard is the only one in her department connecting the dots to Harry. She should be concerned since Harry is in over his head. While he can handle himself, he’s also forgetting his emphysema and unaware how deep the level of chaos he has exposed goes. It’s maddening to him that the youth he’s up against behave in such a way. When the detective tried to confront Harry saying, “this isn’t Northern Ireland” in his response we see his agreement but also his bewilderment, “Those people were fighting for something; for a cause. To them out there, this is just entertainment.”

This is the first feature-length film directed by Daniel Barber from a screenplay by Gary Young. Barber’s previous work was a great Oscar-nominated short called “The Tonto Woman”, a Western based on a short story by Elmore Leonard. Barber creates an emotionally dark and somewhat depressing atmosphere for Young’s formulaic plot. Films where one man takes the law into his own hands as one sole law enforcement official catches on, has become a genre all its own. It’s a good thing there are solid actors here who can inhabit and rise above such typical fare.

Barber delivers an environment relatable to anyone who has witnessed the moral decline around them. It seems arrogant youth from broken families have always been capable of acts of rebellion without a cause but it’s clear that time has only increased the acts of such depraved absurdity. That’s why we’ve had films like the “Death Wish” and most recently “Gran Torino” where seniors are dealing with local thugs. Barber knows this is no new ground here but he does present a very real sense of helplessness and indignance which Caine radiates. Harry Brown doesn’t desire to mow down these arrogant whelps but he’s speaking the only language they know.

Unfortunately, the ending is rather grandiose but by then, it’s no surprise.
I was already well invested in the story and Caine’s portrayal that it didn’t matter. What’s important for the stakes to be believable is that no one ever really did anything out-of-character. As dramatic and outrageous some of the scenes are here, they need to be and are grounded in some kind of believability.

Caine carries this film with a transparent performance that easily draws the viewer in. You understand Harry Brown and hope that he doesn’t get hurt but at the same time, you know he’s not putting himself into situations where that would be possible. While we do see the emotional scar tissue from the war that Harry Brown has tried to sit on all these years rise to the surface, it would be outrageous if he turned into Rambo, he’s more like The Equalizer. This isn’t a film concerned with a death toll but moreso the toll that death has on one man and the community he lives in.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. mATtHeW gRAmITh permalink
    April 29, 2010 1:00 pm

    Sounds like a good one! I’m looking forward to seeing it. There’s something fun about watching tough, older British guys. I’m remembering THE LIMEY and SEXY BEAST. I think I’ll have to watch those two again soon.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      April 29, 2010 2:13 pm

      They’re some of the best characters because they don’t allow blatant machismo to lead them into a fray. They’re tough, you don’t want to mess with them but they think it through first….well, at list the best ones do.


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