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Review: Harry Brown

The trouble with Harry
By PETER KEOUGH  |  June 9, 2010
3.0 3.0 Stars

 

Could British society be in such dire straits as recent films suggest? The Red Riding Trilogy, Looking for Eric, and The Fish Tank all celebrate urban blight riddled with addiction, alcoholism, brutish violence, nasty dispositions, graffiti'd council-block buildings, soul-sapping ennui, and ugly wallpaper. But this latest in the slumming mini-genre offers a couple of new wrinkles: Michael Caine and self-righteous, soul-satisfying vigilante justice.

Harry Brown | Directed by Daniel Barber | Written by Gary Young | with Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Charlie Creed Miles, David Bradley, and Sean Harris | Sony Pictures Classics | 102 minutes
Caine plays the emphysema-afflicted septuagenarian pensioner of the title. His wife is in a coma. Heck, his life is in a coma. All that's left of it is visiting the missus on life support and playing chess with his old friend Leonard (David Bradley) at the local pub. That, and ruefully watching the neighborhood — the Heygate Estate, in southeast London, not far from where Caine himself grew up — go to hell as the young, armed, drug-addled, tattoo'd, semi-human rabble terrorize old coots like Harry and Leonard and any other respectable people who get in their way.

But then something happens, and Harry can take no more. Mind you, he's a veteran of the British Marines, and he served in Northern Ireland, where he did things he doesn't want to talk about. (The Irish don't come off very well in this movie.) And the police — like the hand-holding Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and her ineffectual partner, Terry Hicock (Charlie Creed Miles) — aren't worth the time it takes to ring them up. Just watch how, during an interrogation, Frampton and Hicock let a couple of arrogant punks talk back with foul-mouthed impunity. You know that, at some point, Harry will demonstrate how his mates would have handled a similar situation.

Sounds formulaic, and it is, but among the more potent ingredients in the formula are first-time director Daniel Barber's slick style (the opening sequence, shot by a perp's cell phone, is a classic), his feeling for atmosphere, his eye for squalid detail, and his sly way with allusions (Death Wish, of course, but also A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and the inevitable Get Carter). The acting likewise transcends the generic material — not just the solid supporting work of Mortimer and the quirky Creed Miles, but a brief, wriggling cameo by Sean Harris as Stretch, a Gollum-like drug/porn/gun dealer and human waste product.

No one upstages the underplaying Caine, however, as he effortlessly combines frailty, avuncularity ("What's your name, son?" will chill your blood, and so will "You failed to maintain your weapon"), desperation, and cold-blooded savagery. Let's just say he doesn't do a lot of soul searching when he decides to embrace the hoodlums' murderous joie de vivre and regress to his martial past — a period in his life that had to be a lot more fun than his wheezing, threadbare, present-day reality.

Still, he's not so much "Dirty" as "Dingy" Harry, and his ruthless fussiness in sorting things out endears as much as it horrifies. Even the most lily-livered of liberals are likely to cheer him on, because the politics don't really matter. As the violence grows to include riot police and Molotov cocktails, someone compares the turmoil to Northern Ireland. "Those people were fighting for something — for a cause," Harry scoffs. "To them out there, this is just entertainment." For us in the audience, too.

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