Judge Clark Douglas frequently inspires old men to get violent.
Every man has a breaking point.
"You failed to maintain your weapon, son."
Facts of the Case
Harry Brown (Michael Caine, Batman Begins) is a retired ex-marine living a quiet life in England. He spends his days visiting his ailing wife (Liz Daniels, The Object of Beauty) and his old pal Leonard (David Bradley, Hot Fuzz). Then tragedy strikes: Harry's wife finally succumbs to her illness, and Leonard is brutally murdered on the subway by a group of young thugs. A police investigator (Emily Mortimer, Shutter Island) is attempting to determine who is responsible for the murder, but her efforts are hampered by suspect politics and red tape. Harry had always vowed to live a peaceful life for the sake of his wife, but now that she's gone he feels no need to hold back. He begins to stalk the streets of his neighborhood at night, searching for those responsible and leaving an ever-increasing pile of bodies in his wake.
Look, I can enjoy a good revenge thriller as much as the next person. The actual morality fueling films like Kill Bill and Taken may be reprehensible, but I can let those movies off the hook and simply enjoy them because they're entertainment. Then there are films like Gran Torino and The Brave One that ask to be taken seriously, and I am able to do so because those films feature thoughtful screenplays that really examine the complexities of violence rather than merely celebrating it. Dirty Harry comes close to crossing a line, but its overall ambiguity allows the movie to retain its power and respectability. However, I simply can't give a pass to a film like Harry Brown, which sternly demands to be taken seriously but is rooted in the sort of empty morality that fuels the aforementioned popcorn movies.
The film's basic premise is this: the world has gone to hell, young people in the lower-class parts of England today are soulless monsters who murder and torture people for fun and the police aren't doing a bloody thing about it. The film's depiction of this world is an almost cartoonishly over-the-top portrait of hell on earth, as poor old pensioners like Harry are forced to watch helplessly as savage thugs beat pregnant women and helpless bystanders outside their apartment buildings each day. It's a world of mindless violence and chaos; a generation of good people are fading away and vile teenagers are rising to take their place. The authorities are around, but they seem to be actively avoiding taking any action whatsoever. Harry doesn't really have a choice; his world is a war zone and his side has no soldiers.
If you read interviews with Caine and director Daniel Barber, you'll find some earnest talk about how solutions like education and other resources should be used to help curb this terrible problem of soulless young people running around everywhere. Even if we accept their premise that most of the young people in the lower-class sections of England are horrible brutes (which surely isn't anywhere near the truth), the film itself certainly doesn't indicate that anything other than violence is required to deal with the situation. The film does not explore the morality of Caine's actions, it does not second-guess him and anyone who opposes what he is doing is portrayed as a corrupt tool. It's not only an endorsement of Harry's actions; it's a call to arms for vigilant citizens everywhere to pick up their weapons and wipe out the scum.
The film pulls the same repulsive trick as the recent straight-to-DVD drama Unthinkable. It introduces a sensible, semi-liberal, smart female (played in that film by Carrie-Anne Moss and in this film by Emily Mortimer) who questions the ethics of the film's "hero" (Samuel L. Jackson in that film, Michael Caine in this one). Both films dismiss these characters with a condescending pat on the head, forcing them to witness some of the "real terror" the heroes are fighting and turning their bleeding hearts into bloodlust. Films like The Brave One engage in serious debate on the subject; films like Harry Brown engage in propaganda. The essential difference between this film and Unthinkable is that Harry Brown is actually well-crafted and effective; making its message all the more bothersome.
Even so, look past the superb lead performance and Barber's intense atmosphere and you'll find a film fueled by the impotent rage of angry old men: "These young kids today are terrible, just terrible!" At one point, Mortimer's character chides Harry by informing him, "This isn't Northern Ireland, Harry." Harry replies gravely, "No it's not. Those people were fighting for something; for a cause. To them out there, this is just entertainment." These are grave words, spoken with persuasive authority by Mr. Caine (whose performance really is vastly better than the film deserves). Unfortunately, even the masterful delivery can't mask the fact that the lines are little more than sensationalist rubbish.
The DVD transfer is okay, but not as exceptional as it ought to be. The imagery is intentionally drab and dank throughout, but I wish detail were a little stronger and blacks were a little deeper. The image is serviceable but not quite ideal in standard-def terms. Audio is respectable enough, with a few noteworthy sequences rumbling up a storm while the majority of the film remains rather subdued. Supplements include a commentary with Caine, Barber and producer Kris Thykier and a handful of deleted scenes. It's worth noting that the British DVD & Blu-ray release offered additional interviews and a music video that are nowhere to be found on this disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As I mentioned before, the Caine performance is superb and Barber's direction is stellar. I don't like the film, but there's no denying that it's well-staged and involving.
An ugly, self-important little film wastes a strong turn from Michael Caine in the service of a wrong-headed story. Too bad.
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