Back in 2010, I was trying to remember the last time I saw Sir Michael Caine play the lead in a motion picture. Looking back, I think it was “The Quiet American” in which he gave what he thought, and I agree with him, was one of his very best performances ever. Since then, he has been the supporting actor of choice in movies like “The Dark Knight” and “Inception.” The big joke around Hollywood was if you can’t get Morgan Freeman for your movie, get Caine. Those two guys are in just about every other movie being made. Still, we need a reminder every so often of how truly great an actor Caine is. There are a number of good reasons why his career has lasted several decades after having survived critical disasters like “Jaws: The Revenge.”
But in 2009, Caine did get indeed get the lead in a movie many still have not seen, “Harry Brown.” I saw it as a double feature at the New Beverly Cinema along with a classic movie Caine starred in called “Get Carter.” Both these films have him playing characters where violence plays or has played a big part in their lives. With “Get Carter,” he played a professional killer who was almost completely amoral, and yet you couldn’t help but like him. It’s almost tempting to look at “Harry Brown” as kind of a sequel to “Get Carter” as it makes you wonder what Jack Carter would have been like had he grown up long enough to become a senior citizen. Even if he managed to put his past behind him, it is always bound to catch up with him as only so many bad deeds go unpunished.
From its trailer, “Harry Brown” certainly does look like the British version of “Death Wish,” one of the most unforgettable movies about vigilante justice. But you could also look at it as being to Caine what “Gran Torino” was to Clint Eastwood. Each movie involves a character so uncomfortable with the changes going on around them, and they are resistant, as is everyone, to any kind of change. There’s even a good dose of Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” thrown in for good measure as you wonder how deeply Harry was shaped by his experiences as a military officer.
Either way you look at it, “Harry Brown” takes the overused concept of a regular person who loses someone close to them, forcing them to take matters into their own hands when the police fail to help, and turns it into a very effective thriller which is truly unrelenting in the intensity it generates. Seriously, this is a very bleak movie which puts you into the main character’s mindset and never lets you go. It also takes place in a an environment which is all too real to those who live in it, and the consequences hit you like a swift kick to the gut. You may look at Brown’s surroundings and say to yourself no one could pay me enough to live in this environment, but we are stuck there for 103 minutes, and there’s no easy way out.
Caine plays the title character, a widowed North Ireland military veteran who finds his training coming back to him as he comes to confront those who murdered his best friend, Leonard (David Bradley) in such a cold and callous way. Following this, it becomes clear to Harry his days of being indifferent to the horrible goings on now are at an end, and he threatens to become even more lethal than those gang members he stealthily pursues. In the process, his training as a soldier is reawakened, and he uses it to his advantage. The way Harry sees it, he and his men fought for something important, but these kids today are instead fighting for their own depressing amusement.
Caine continues to make screen acting look effortless for him, and even the moments where he doesn’t speak a single word speaks volumes of what is going through his mind. We feel Harry’s pain over becoming so lonely without a soul to rely on, and we experience his state of mind completely thanks to Caine’s incredible performance. We have seen this kind of character a lot in movies, but Caine imbues Harry with a wounded humanity which keeps him for becoming completely cold blooded. Even as he descends into violent acts of raw vengeance, we can’t help but sympathize with Harry as we come to wonder what we would do if we unlucky enough to be in this situation. We never catch Caine playing on the clichés other actors would likely fall into, and it makes you wonder if there is another actor who could have played this role as well as him.
“Harry Brown” marks the feature length directorial debut of Daniel Barber whose only other project was the Oscar nominated short film “The Tonto Woman.” Filming at a council estate in South London, he creates an unrelentingly bleak atmosphere which feels even darker than anything David Fincher came up with in “Alien 3” or “Seven.” Just taking in the atmosphere which surrounds Harry and his fellow neighbors drains the soul pretty quick. Instead of prettying anything up, Barber captures the hopelessness of a people stuck in a crime ridden area so far out of their control, and of the frustration which drives the main character into action.
It is clear from the start that this will not be your average Hollywood vigilante flick, and the violence featured here is very brutal. The movie’s opening sequence features a very realistically staged gang initiation sequence where a new recruit is made to do drugs and then gets beaten up to within an inch of his life. This is later followed up by a highly unnerving scene where two gang members are riding along on a motorbike while filming their escapades, and one of them ends up shooting a young mother while she is pushing her baby in a stroller. From that point on, you never feel safe while watching this movie. You feel the gunshots when they go off here, and it all becomes a race to see how much longer Harry can stay alive.
Barber also proves to be masterful in setting up highly suspenseful scenes which are brimming over with excruciating tension. The best example of this comes when Harry meets with two young men to buy a gun, and both are clearly high on their own supply to where they are hopelessly paranoid. You feel like things could explode at any second, and I have to give a lot of credit to the two actors, Sean Harris and Joseph Gilgun, here as they make their drugged-up characters all the more frightening than they already were in the screenplay. Seriously, the scene between them and Caine is one of the most unnerving I have seen in a long time, and I will never be able to shake it.
There is also a very nice supporting performance here from the lovely Emily Mortimer who previously stole my heart in “Lars and the Real Girl” opposite Ryan Gosling. She plays Detective Inspector Alice Frampton who is at times empathetic to the suffering around her, and at other times very serious about the work she does. It’s not your typical tough as nails cop on display here, and I found this to be quite interesting. Frampton almost looks out of her league, but she quickly shows us how she keeps an open mind and considers every possibility without singling out anything based on preconceptions or stereotypes. Of course, being the smartest cop in the movie, no one listens to or takes her seriously enough. Then again, if they had, the running length of this film would be equivalent to that of “The Tonto Woman.”
“Harry Brown” is truly one of the bleakest movies I have ever seen, and while the trailers make you think we are traveling into familiar “Death Wish” territory, this is not the case in the slightest. All these years later, I still can’t get it out of my head as it affected me more than I anticipated. I was expecting a solid B-movie at most, but there was much more to the story than what I saw at first glance. It marks a very impressive debut for Barber, and it allows Caine to give us yet another great character and unforgettable performance to a resume which is overflowing with them.
* * * ½ out of * * * *