Artful on the surface but ugly at the core, “Harry Brown” stars Michael Caine as an every-gent who becomes a lethal avenger after drug-dealing youths kill his best friend.
As this septuagenarian vigilante shoots and stabs baddies, the film serves foremost as a showcase for Caine, who provides crucial character shades and impressive sizzle.
But the movie’s story is reprehensible.
An “urban Western” is how director Daniel Barber, making his feature debut, describes the film, which starts out with hints of a Ken Loach style social drama and soon suggests a cross between Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” or “Gran Torino,” and, perhaps less intentionally, a 1970s Charles Bronson vehicle.
Caine plays Harry Brown, a retired Londoner who lives in a public-housing complex where young toughs roam menacingly.
An ex-marine with extreme war experiences under his belt (translation: expect mayhem), Harry snaps into action after best mate Leonard (David Bradley) is killed by youths — gangbangers police inspector Frampton (Emily Mortimer) fails to nail.
Soon, Harry is knifing muggers, blowing away dealers and being dubbed the “vigilante pensioner.”
Barber maintains a smooth hand on the wheel and handles suspense and action competently. He also, initially, delivers human moments (Harry talking reflectively about his recently departed wife) that hint that the drama might develop affectingly.
But about one-third through, when Harry Brown becomes Harry Callahan, the movie, which is written by Gary Young, becomes a skillfully art-directed but lurid and manipulative journey through a swamp of human badness driven by a storyline that is basically a string of crash-bang encounters.
Instead of conveying tragedy in Harry’s decline into violence, or in the monstrousness exhibited by these kids doomed by poverty and neglect, this purportedly serious film presents Harry’s vigilantism as heroic, Harry’s victims as snarly, swaggering scum, and reformist cop Frampton as a do-gooder weakling.
Conditions may indeed be dreadful in housing sites like these, but by presenting them so one-dimensionally, the movie zaps viewers’ ability to care.
Caine, meanwhile, is on his own superb planet. He gives his problematic character satisfying facets of sadness, brokenness and decency in the early scenes, and when providing the nastiness, succeeds in making some of it cartoonishly entertaining.
In the latter arena, Caine’s delivery of the film’s most memorable line “You failed to maintain your weapon, son” — rivals Eastwood’s “Get off my lawn” for indelibility.
Harry Brown (two stars)
Starring Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Charlie Creed Miles, David Bradley
Written by Gary Young
Directed by Daniel Barber
Running time 1 hour, 42 minutes