Back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, Michael Caine served as kind of a poor man’s James Bond, starring in a number of spy and crime thrillers like The Ipcress File, The Italian Job, Deadfall, Get Carter, etc. As Harry Brown, the ex-marine pensioner turned vigilante, Caine brings along the memories of those past roles, drawing on his screen persona to give the character that believable potential of menace even as he shuffles around his apartment or contemplates his next move in a chess match. He still knows how to handle a gun convincingly, and when he first dispatches a would-be mugger in one swift movement, you can really see how the whole thing is really muscle memory.
So it’s a good thing that the filmmakers casted Caine; his skill and experience in such films makes up for some of the ineptitude of first-time director Daniel Barber and his screenwriter, Gary Young. Harry Brown is slightly diverting and sports some flashy visuals (the digital photography gives much of the film a sort of sickly yellow glow) but the painfully slow opening, stilted dialogue and Barber’s preference for scenes of youth-inflicted violence over actual character development all lead up to disappointment.
At first, Brown is just an aging retiree, watching out the window as the world around him (or at least the particular housing development he lives in) goes to pot. His wife is in the hospital with some unspecified terminal disease, their only daughter long dead, for unspecified reasons. These details aren’t really important, but they are signs of a general lack of interest in anything that doesn’t involve gunshot wounds. Brown’s best and only friend Leonard (David Bradley, known to most of you as Mr. Filch from the Harry Potter series) is being terrorized by the local youth, and the police appear powerless to help him. Leonard shows his friend an old rifle bayonet, and murmurs that he’s reached his limit. The next morning, Leonard is dead, and Brown slowly becomes determined to dole out justice to the group of young toughs responsible.
There are some vague attempts at meaning tossed in: Brown is not proud of his violent abilities, and thought them safely tucked away. Still, once that first bit of hesitation is done with, there’s much less talk and far more shooting as the bodies begin to pile up in Brown’s wake. There’s also an exchange of about two lines of dialogue about whether what Brown is doing is right, but again, it’s quickly “right, enough of that, back to the shooting.”
Most of the supporting characters are flat as a pancake, never advancing beyond stereotyped roles: the foul-mouthed gang leader, the Boy in the Gang Who Really Didn’t Want to Kill the Old Man, Honest, the fascist police captain, the detectives who know the truth but can’t get anyone to believe them. Particularly frustrating is detective Alice Frampton, played by Emily Mortimer, who is quite a fine actress (Match Point, Lars and the Real Girl, Dear Frankie). Frampton is possibly the most unconvincing detective I’ve ever seen – not that she lacks the wit to piece together the situation, but her complete inability to defend or explain her theories to anyone, especially a superior officer, makes it hard to believe anyone could advance so far in crime investigation with so little confidence. Her partner asks why she requested a transfer to this particular beat, which involves so much drug and gun violence, when she could be dealing with fraud and white-collar crime. It’s not just a legitimate question, it’s a necessary one if the audience is to have any hope of understanding her character – and she never answers. The parade of missing information continues.
Besides Caine, the only other bright spot in the film is Sean Harris, who plays Stretch, a local drug dealer Brown seeks out when trying to obtain a gun. Stretch can’t be on screen for more than ten minutes, probably less, but that’s enough time for Harris’ performance to burn into your brain. Stretch is covered with the usual threatening tattoos and scars, but his real menace comes from somewhere much, much deeper. His movements are slow and shaky, his voice quiet and almost trembling, his eyes deadened from heroin use and who knows what else. Yet, all of this seems to be hiding a terrible spark underneath; as he casually leers at a young girl overdosing on his couch, you get the impression that you are looking at the physical incarnation of Depravity. It’s might be even more terrifying than Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight – the Joker is Chaos embodied, but there is real evil here.
But, just like that, we’ve gone too long without a gunshot, and it’s time for Harry Brown to find his next victim. The devil himself might live next door to Brown, but apparently a bunch of messed-up kids are a much higher priority.
In (some) theaters now.
Verdict: 2 out of 4 stars