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Harry Brown Movie Review

Adrian Hatwell
Adrian Hatwell

Slipping easily back into the loafers of hard-nosed British crime, Michael Caine revisits the kind of hit-and-miss films that made his working-class swagger so prevalent in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Given the film industry’s notorious tendency to disregard its aging stars it’s always nice to see an old stalwart back in the lead, even if it does smack mightily of nostalgia.

Harry Brown (Caine), a pensioner living in a less-than-desirable British housing estate, lives an unassuming existence knocking morosely between his hospital-ridden wife and hopelessly afraid best friend. When fate cruelly wrenches both people from the ex-serviceman’s life Harry is left with nothing but a wounded sense of justice and cache of military training with which to fill his days.

The elderly gent manages to assign blame for both deaths rather easily on the young neighbourhood scallywags. Harry is unable to be at his wife’s side as she breathes her last after being forced to take the long way round to the hospital because the more direct underpass had become a dangerous hangout for local hoods.

A crying shame, to be sure, but it’s not until drinking buddy Leonard (David Bradley) cops it that Harry is convinced to really point the muzzle of blame at the neighbourhood youths. While Harry was content to ignore the increasing violence of his area, Leonard was out of his mind with worry about the youths in revolt - so much so that one night he takes a bayonet down to the infamous underpass and meets a grizzly end.

Having now lost everything in his sad little life, Harry reverts back to his old serviceman ways, resolved to clean up the neighbourhood in a brutal, if somewhat unfocused, manner. As revenge plots go it is satisfyingly by-the-book, Caine has always been a phenomenal badass and age has done nothing to diminish that. However, outside of mindless vengeance the film slips into some intolerably dumb social commentary that really spoils the fun.

In the world of Harry Brown the bad guys are easy to identify; they’re anyone who is young. They have no jobs, they’re disrespectful, foul and violent. They like technology and weapons and bodily emissions. They don’t like property rights, authority, or personal hygiene. They are everywhere, irredeemable, and need nothing more than a good hot knife across the throat.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with reprehensible villains, in fact for a good revenge flick its practically mandatory. But Harry Brown paints an entire subset of society with that brush; there are no decent young people, none that are conflicted, none that want more out of life than pistols and casual buggery. If it’s even a scrap of humanity you want you had better look to a cop or the elderly, because the kids are just fucked.

It’s not exactly offensive, but it is lazy and silly. And worst of all, a missed opportunity as the film does skirt some relevant, interesting issues that it’s just too featherweight to properly discuss. It references urban riots but leaves the causes unexamined. The prevalence of cheap new technology and its impact on subculture is dumped squarely in the ‘evil’ column. Even the basic tenant of vigilantism, not exactly a hot new concept, gets a stupefyingly simplistic treatment – it just plain works. Kill the kids who are part of your neighbourhood’s woes and the problems will simply go away.
It’s a real shame the film doesn’t have greater thematic chops, because on the surface it is a fantastic production. The atmosphere of utter desperation is infectious, the depiction of urban crime is unrelentingly nasty, and the very few actors lucky enough to be assigned actual characters do wonderful jobs.

In the end it is most definitely Caine’s show and he can definitely still do violence with the best of them. His charming working-class rogue routine has, rather naturally, given way to the broken-down old hardass act, which fits snugly. Unfortunately it’s also been done by a handful of other old warhorses fairly recently - try Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino or Terence Stamp’s The Limey. They might not necessarily be better actors but they’ve certainly ended up making better films.

True Caine fans aren’t likely to be disappointed by the film’s shortcomings but those asking for a little more out of their cinema than the theatrical version of your old man moaning at the nightly news will find it hard to swallow.  

Harry Brown opens in selected NZ theatres August 19.

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