This starts off full of promise, but…
Harry Brown (Michael Caine) is an elderly ex-Marine making the best of his miserable lot. He lives in a low-rent housing estate terrorised by marauding gangs of youths and drug dealers. He ventures out only to visit his terminally ill wife, who lies in her hospital bed unable to recognise him, and to have an ale and a game of chess with his pensioner mate Len (David Bradley) at the local pub. His wife dies, then his grief is compounded when police come knocking on his door to inform him that they are investigating Len’s murder. And at this point, the movie goes off the tracks, ultimately descending into farce.
What started as a sensitive and measured portrayal of life in the estates from the perspective of the elderly gives way to a crude and melodramatic appeal to the baser instincts of the audience, as poor old Harry sets himself on a course of vengeance and vigilante justice.
Seeking a gun, he knocks at the door of a seedy type he has noticed lounging against the bar at the local and followed home. He is dragged inside to talk business, and here the alarm bells started ringing for me. The denizens of this squalid dump are two of the nastiest, dirtiest pieces of lowlife imaginable. Think Charlie Manson crossed with the worst of the junkies in Trainspotting and multiply the evil factor times 50. Talk about over the top! But there’s more!
The two scumbags trustingly lead Harry through their expansive hydroponic dope crop (as if!) to show him their firearm wares in a back room, where a female junkie is splayed out unconscious on a flea-bitten sofa with a syringe sticking out of her arm, while a snuff porno video plays in the background. I kid you not.
Well, it ain’t long afore Harry scores his gun and starts taking out the trash, so to speak…and my word, does his Marines training come in handy! Of course, his primary targets are the gang members who stabbed Len to death, but it soon becomes evident that he’s gonna clean up the entire neighbourhood along the way.
Not only that – he manages to emerge out of a fog in the midst of a gang riot with the fortuitous timing of a Dickensian novel to rescue the sensitive, caring female cop investigating Len’s murder from a car wreck, and follows that up by saving her yet again, this time from the throttling mitts of …well, perhaps you can guess.
The notion of an elderly emphysematous vigilante restoring peace to a troubled neighbourhood by systematically blowing away an entire gang of thugs as well as the resident drug dealers is ludicrous, but worse is the premise that this is a just solution to a serious social problem – and one to be cheered.
Lest I be accused of allowing political correctness to spoil the fun, I should add that I have nothing against vigilante movies per se. There’s a place for ‘em! They serve a cathartic function. Who doesn’t love sitting back and delighting in a renegade good guy meting out some ultraviolent street justice to the baddest mutha in town? Far more satisfying and dramatic than having the legal system run its laborious and way too civilised course, innit?
Thing is, it needs to be done with some wit. There needs to be a bit of nudge nudge wink wink twixt director and audience. Dirty Harry is an obvious case in point.
Where Harry Brown falls down is in taking itself so seriously. Director Daniel Barber falls over himself trying to present the grim reality of youth violence and the terror imposed by gangs on the elderly and the weak, but succeeds only in presenting a blunt-headed black and white vision that has no real reference point in the real world, and that spawns a grotesquerie of youthful villains that are just too depraved, too inhumane, too unrelentingly bad, to be plausible or to evoke any sense of outrage in the viewer.
The one redeeming element of this movie is Michael Caine’s performance, which somehow transcends the fatally flawed material he has to work with. Ultimately, though, his extraordinary talent is wasted on this dross.
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