Harry Brown is one of those films that seems to have flown under the radar for a lot of people. Released in 2009 (limited in the U.S., but getting a wider theatrical release in the U.K. and Ireland), it’s a solid film that doesn’t seem to have gotten much attention. It might be the name. As I’ve noted before, the name of a movie is the most prominent bit of marketing it can have, and a simple “Firstname Lastname” title generally doesn’t do much to get peoples’ attention. But director Daniel Barber’s feature debut deserves a moment in the spotlight.
Michael Caine plays the title role, a widower living in London who has gradually become disgusted with the state of his neighborhood. Gang members run rampant, graffiti is everywhere, drugs are everywhere, violence and beatings are a daily occurrence. Meanwhile, he has gradually lost most of his friends and loved ones to old age. When his best friend is beaten to death, and he learns that the criminals responsible are unlikely to face convictions in court, he unleashes a part of his past that he had purposefully kept restrained since his marriage: that of a former Marine who saw active duty. He begins a one-man crusade to eliminate the gangs, and the killers of his friend in particular.
The plot is going to sound familiar to anybody who has watched a lot of crime films. So what stops this film from simply being “Michael Caine in Death Wish?” Mostly the fact that it is Michael Caine, in a film released in 2009. Charles Bronson was by no means young when he first did Death Wish; he was in his early 50s. But his character Paul Kersey was still a man in good health, and one who thrived on the violence he partook in. Caine was 75 when making Harry Brown, and the film doesn’t try to portray him as a decades-younger man. Harry Brown is a widower, and a pensioner, and he has the problems that an elderly man is going to have. He has the training of a Marine, but his body is out of practice; more importantly, it’s just plain old. His reflexes aren’t what they used to be, and he has emphysema. This is a man who shouldn’t be walking all over the city by himself to begin with, let alone going after gang members. And unlike Kersey, he doesn’t like what he’s doing. He’s just angry and saddened. There’s no joy in the killing for him, he simply believes the world needs him to get rid of these people. He’s also a little more discriminating than Kersey; when he kills a drug dealer, it’s not because he was dealing drugs, but because he refused to allow an ambulance to be called for a girl who was overdosing.
Thus, while the plot is similar to Death Wish, the tone is rather different. Brown is transformed in different ways by his actions than Kersey is, and he faces different challenges. Of course, one common factor is the ineffectualness of the local police. There seems to be only one competent officer on the local force, played by Emily Mortimer. She’s the only one who suspects that Brown is their vigilante killer; the other officers laugh off the suggestion. But the incompetence of the police in this film goes quite a bit further than an unwillingness to see an ailing pensioner as a killer. The S.I. (Iain Glen) has one of the more severe cases of recto-cranial insertion in crime films. Not only does he refuse to listen to Mortimer’s character, he also eventually reassigns her to another division solely because she had the temerity to investigate the case she was assigned to. He at one point decides that the deaths of the gang members Brown killed are more important to investigate than the old man they murdered because they were shot instead of stabbed — and he literally states this outright. Apparently in his mind people are less murdered depending on what weapon is used? It’s arguably necessary in a vigilante film to have an ineffective police force, to spur the vigilante onward, but this was a little too much.
However, that’s the only prominent blemish in an otherwise enjoyable film. Most Death Wish successors have been all about the violence, even though the original had a solid psychological aspect to it as well; Harry Brown bucks this trend, and Caine delivers one of his stronger performances as Harry. Like many of Caine’s performances, it’s not over-the-top; it’s a nuanced role that he plays subtly. Harry’s depression and frustration are writ large with small gestures. It makes for a film that is cathartic and melancholy amidst its violence, and it’s a tone that works very well for it.