Michael Caine anchors British movie about an old man pushed too far
Pragmatic and weary with a pulsing undercurrent of menace, director Daniel Barber's Harry Brown is most remarkable for the way it mimics its titular character every step of the way. Terrorized by inner-city thugs and crumbling under the weight of time and the loss of friends and family that entails, Harry Brown needs to lash out. He yearns to bend these kids over his knee and give them a good what for in the misplaced parental hope that he can change the downward slide his Congestion Zone neighborhood has taken. Brown doesn’t quite know how he’s going to do this, or even if his elderly heart can take it, and neither does the movie itself. Harry Brown thrashes, telegraphing its punches from a mile away and whiffing every other knockout attempt, but when it connects, it’s a whopper.
There’s an honesty in its making that’s a genuine achievement for debut director Barber. His movie opens with a chaotic, first-person POV of an area hoodlum cackling and biking around a London park. There’s a woman with a baby, then more young men surround her. There are shots fired, and the scene ends with a deafening silence. Nothing more needs to be said about the state of this area. What follows is fait accompli: We meet Harry (the inimitable cinematic treasure Michael Caine) and his elderly buddy. Another tragedy occurs and police sweep the place, coming face to face with the Iron Snitch Curtain. Governmental bureaucracy fails again, leaving the cleanup to a certain former military man who hasn’t forgotten his training.
Barber appropriately tackles the morality dilemma inherent to a vigilante story: Aren’t you just as monstrous as those you’re fighting against if you leave justice and due process at the door? But he has more on his mind than just that. Barber’s and Caine’s Harry Brown is almost too highly skilled for wild revenge, his techniques precise and calculating until his appearances in dark alleys ruled by romper stompers amount to something closer to the Jigsaw killer in the Saw movies than Dirty Harry. Brown elicits terror, and rightly so—he’s a terrorist, and a far more effective one than any of those gangs.
This requires Barber and Caine to ratchet up the opposition and the left angles until Brown’s and the movie’s mission almost get lost in the shuffle. Emily Mortimer comes on as the voice of reason who questions Brown’s—or whomever’s, since nobody quite knows who is committing these retaliatory atrocities—moral high ground. Brown’s neighborhood erupts into absolute anarchy in the wake of Brown’s actions—reminiscent of, coincidentally, Caine’s warnings to Batman that his vigilantism has created an ethical vacuum that enables even greater violence in The Dark Knight—and Barber finally steps in the mess he’s created in the final, absurd act that involves a bartender, a criminal overlord, and unthinkable crimes against traditional authority. It’s fascinating to watch, sure, but you can’t help but wonder if Brown, like Batman, is the enemy of order.
Caine’s performance elevates Brown’s internal struggle to high art and the legendary actor has found in Barber a companion unafraid to go down the dark alleys, even if it lands them in structural trouble on occasion. Harry Brown is a bold movie, nearly reckless in its abandon, and one that stands head and shoulders above the never-ending pileup of British gangster films.