April 30, 2012

Rabid Rewind: Harry Brown

Harry Brown
starring Michael Caine, Daniel Bradley, and Emily Mortimer
directed by Daniel Barber
screenplay by Gary Young
Samuel Goldwyn Films (2009)

Prior to seeing this movie, I could come up with quite a few qualifiers to describe Michael Caine, and "bad-ass" was not among them. Now that I've seen his turn as Harry Brown, I will have to reconsider.

Harry Brown is a retiree making it day-to-day in a rundown section of London while his wife lays comatose in bed. He lives in the kind of neighborhood you'd equate with those London riots from last year. Drugs and gang violence are pervasive, and for a quiet codger like Harry, it's probably nowhere near where he expected to end up. But, he has his pub and he has his friend, Len, to help ease the dreariness of it all. Things only get worse though, when his wife dies, and then Len is murdered by the young thugs who've been terrorizing him relentlessly. When it's clear the police aren't going to do much of anything to bring the criminals to justice, Harry reaches a breaking point and decides to rekindle his military training and go after the thugs himself.

Roger Ebert, a critic I don't normally look to for an opinion, actually made a pretty good this-meets-that comparison, calling the movie something between Charles Bronson's Death Wish and Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino. That's actually pretty spot on. Harry Brown is no superman, and even with his military background, he's no spring chicken and his emphysema doesn't help when he prowls the streets. The way he goes about getting revenge feels incredibly genuine, and incredibly tense as he first seeks to buy a gun from a drug dealer. The encounter with a strung-out junkie, his lacky friend, and a young woman who may be overdosing in the corner of the room is creepy and cringe-inducing, and effectively demonstrates that Harry is out of his element and won't stop regardless.

I'm not sure how well the movie was received in England. Maybe it was laughed out of theaters, I don't know. I can imagine a movie like this being made in Hollywood could really wind up as a clumsy caricature of the subject matter, but Harry Brown felt gritty and believable and not the least bit glamorous. Michael Caine is resolute and vulnerable and strikes a great balance between a despondent man looking for justice and an outraged citizen on the brink.

There isn't too much explored from the gangster's point of view, at least not until late in the film with the final showdown. It is far from how you might expect it though, but rewarding all the same. One thing that kind of quirked an eyebrow was Emily Mortimer's role as Detective Alice Frampton. She's the plucky go-getter out there to do the right thing, in spite of the cynicism that permeates in the precinct and on the streets. And at the very end of the movie when I thought her character would get a moment for some kind of vindication, and it didn't happen. At least I don't believe it did.

It's a really good movie and is another piece of gritty British fiction that has me hungry for more. If anyone has recommendations, I'm all ears.

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