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Awesome: 8.7%
Worth A Look: 30.43%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 0%

3 reviews, 5 user ratings

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Harry Brown
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by Jack Sommersby

"Caine Enlivens This Just-Average 'Death Wish' Knockoff"
3 stars

For fans of Caine, it's a must; for the undemanding, it should sate well enough.

Harry Brown is nothing more than an updated Death Wish imitation set in London, and gosh knows it's no great shakes, but it's admiringly put together by the acute director Daniel Barber and staggeringly acted by the great Michael Caine. I can't enthusiastically recommend it because some of its plot mechanics are rather slack and the grand finale overwrought, but on a sheer entertainment level it works -- it's not going to go into cinematic history as even remotely influential but gets the job done more often than not. And in a day and age when so many movies are strictly lackluster in their undying desire to easily appease the popcorn-munching masses, that's saying a lot. What we have here is Caine playing a low-income "pensioner" living a lonely life in a shoddy public-housing project referred to as The Estate, a rather ironic name given its dilapidated structure and prevailing criminal element of young punks who rule the place and infest it with both senseless violence and heroin pushing. As to be expected, the police have largely been ineffectual, or, to be more precise, have chosen to be ineffectual being that the poor citizens harassed and scared into submission are of the lower class. Caine's Harry Brown has learned to keep his head down and ignore the gangs that intimidate on a daily basis; when he leaves the grounds he refuses to take a more convenient route through a tunnel where the criminal element hangs out. At first, we think this is going to serve as an obvious plot device -- Brown's terminally-ill wife is in the hospital, and we think that when he finally gets the call that she's about to die he'll defiantly take the tunnel to get there, which will be the catalyst for violence; or that when he finally gets to the hospital after not cutting through the tunnel that his wife has died within a matter of minutes before his arrival, and this will trigger the catalyst. Neither happens. Rather, after his only friend, a fellow lonely widower who Harry regularly plays chess with in a nondescript neighborhood bar, is done in by the gang after being fed up with their antics like setting little fires outside his door, Harry, with not a companion in the world now, decides to exact vigilante violence on the punks responsible. Harry goes from being a senile pushover to a determined man with a mission sans passion, with his previous stint as a Marine in Northland Ireland coming in handy -- he can still take a knife away from a punk in close proximity and stick it in him; and his hands are still steady enough to accurately fire a weapon. Soon Harry's dispatching punks left and right, and a police detective, who initially interviewed him after his friend's death as a mere formality, suspects that this old codger is responsible for it, though her superior hastily brushes this off as implausible. Besides, the victims are far from angels, and many of the police don't see it as a matter worth pushing or pursuing.

As mentioned, the story is far from original to the point where its contextual value is pretty much nonexistent. But one of the things the movie has in its favor is giving the villains a rock-hard texture of frightening amorality that gets deep under your skin -- they're never cartoonish, which would have been the easy way out, but completely devoid of anything resembling a conscience or moral compass, which, considering their young age, makes them tragic as well as menacing. They talk in facile sound bites from violent movies and violence-laden music; they're legal adults but basically unformed -- you can't imagine a single valid thought going on within them except the self-involved wants for immediate pleasure and short-term survival to be able to indulge in it. They're hair-triggered, dimensionless monsters but human monsters whose eyes are the windows to nothing even remotely resembling a soul. Harry, on the other hand, is full of soul, but it's been steadily dissipating from his wife's prolonged illness and death, so when he loses his dear friend to the punks, it's the last straw -- there's noting left on this earth that means something to him anymore. Lucky for us the briefly-seen relationship between the two men isn't cheaply milked for bathos. In fact, there's a momentary flash of anger on the part of Harry who doesn't like that his friend has asked him if he ever killed anyone as a Marine: Harry is someone who was good at killing but certainly isn't proud of it. Perhaps his background as a Marine is too conveniently schematic in justifying his descent in vigilantism -- he makes the distinction that at least the people who he fought in that war were fighting for a cause -- but in dramatic terms it's solid enough as far as these things go. The same can't be said for the dialogue, alas, which isn't terrible but mediocre at best; some of the time you sense it's quite inferior to what should be coming out of Harry's and the police's mouths given the gravity of the situation. (On the other hand, there are thankfully no going-for-the-Oscar monologues on Harry's part.) And the whole police-investigation subplot that's trotted out is just tired. It exudes the very definition of "going through the motions" and doesn't offer a single surprise. It also doesn't help that Emily Mortimer, playing the lead investigator of Harry's friend's case, is her usual underwhelming self: she's neither forceful nor charming enough to warrant her screen time; a better actress might have enlivened the scenes with her and Caine. This is Barber's directorial debut in feature films, and his technical assuredness gives the movie some snap and style. He makes The Estates a palpable creation of plausible everyday misery for its inhabitants, and he doesn't overemphasize the grunge factor -- there are actually some semblances of quiet to be had, and some of them are pierced not by the punks but by the loud televisions of other pensioners whose life forces are steadily draining away in their desolate abodes.

In a movie without a lot of great scenes, there are at least a handful of good ones that play out a lot better than you'd expect, and there's a flat-out very-good one where Harry infiltrates the home of two of the punks posing as a gun buyer. What makes it stand out are the levels of tension going on: Harry's nervousness of being in such a place; the strung-out guys naturally viewing the elderly Harry with suspicion (he's told them he wants a pistol for shooting pigeons off his roof), Harry showing concern for a young teenager on the couch with a needle in her arm on the brink of overdose, and the guys' outrage at his suggestion that an ambulance should be called. Where a lot of directors would cave in to the desire to push it for sensationalistic effect, Barber takes his time in easing his way into it and maintaining the kind of taut-wire tension you could cut with a knife; there's no fancy editing or distracting camerawork getting in the way -- he lets the scene maturely percolate until it explodes with all violent sound and fury (though he does telegraph an unloaded weapon pointed at Harry longer than needed so we're wise to it a crucial few seconds before Harry is). And he doesn't go in for any trite idyllic contrasts between the crummy The Estate and better homes in bright middle-class neighborhoods -- the story is in the projects and steadily stays there, which gives the proceedings some much-needed focus. It's a brisk and clean directorial job that gives the material more girth than it probably warrants. Of course, the movie wouldn't be half as passable if it weren't for a stalwart like Caine, whose one-hundred-and-forty-sixth movie this is at the age of seventy six, and he hasn't lost his masterly touch -- not by a longshot. He takes a role that isn't all that complex and fills it to the brink with as much truth and power as it can hold. Harry's not a particularly distinguished human being, just another rung on the ladder of people in his social and economic level; we get the impression that he never intended to set the world on fire, just to be a loving family man to a daughter and wife who are now deceased. Caine is willing to stay deep inside a character and invest it with the high-grade nuance and texture necessary to vivify but not emote. I can't say that having Harry at the beginning of the movie reach over to the empty side of his wife's side of the bed is very original, but Caine, reveling in the basic emotional truth of the moment, gets by it without going maudlin on us. And when Harry does regress back into a killer, there's no light in his eyes -- Caine lets us see how violence still repulses Harry but is willing to indulge in it all over again for what he sees as justified righteousness. In the fifty-nine years since Caine's been acting he's never overdone it, even with characters a lot of actors would've overindulged in, like the vicious mobster in Mona Lisa and the dashing ladies-man movie star in Sweet Liberty. Artistically speaking, Harry Brown doesn't do Caine a whole lot of favors, but he certainly does it plenty, and it's enough to warrant it a marginal look-see.

I highly recommend listening to the DVD audio commentary of Caine and the director. It's informative, insightful, and very amusing.

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originally posted: 12/25/10 09:00:55
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2010 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/08/11 Chris F Very good film better than i expected 4 stars
10/04/10 The Stick that Slaps Simply excellent... 5 stars
9/18/09 James Thomas Brilliant and cathartic for people in Britain sick of apologising for violent gangs 5 stars
8/22/09 Cast & Crew Member Director does a pretty good job with a fairly one dimensional script. 3 stars
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  30-Apr-2010 (R)
  DVD: 31-Aug-2010


  DVD: 31-May-2010

Directed by
  Daniel Barber

Written by
  Gary Young

  Michael Caine
  Emily Mortimer
  David Bradley
  Liam Cunningham
  Jack O'Connell
  Iain Glen

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