It’s tempting, and not entirely inaccurate, to describe “Harry Brown” as a geriatric “Death Wish,” though many wags more likely will blurb it as Michael Caine’s “Gran Torino.” Either way you look at it, this bleak, gripping, sporadically exciting drama about a retired soldier who takes aim at young hoodlums (and their not-so-young enablers) in his London public-housing complex could generate respectable theatrical coin and impressive homevid action. Pic should skew toward older auds, though many younger ticketbuyers may be curious to see ass-kicking by the actor they know best as Batman’s butler.
Caine is effortlessly and authoritatively credible in the title role, a stoic pensioner who’s introduced during his death watch for his hospitalized wife. Resigned to spending his twilight years alone, he tries to ignore the drug-dealing and violent outbursts that are increasing common in his gone-to-seed apartment block. (Pic was filmed in and around the notorious Heygate Estate of London’s East End — ironically, not far from where Caine grew up.)
But when gang members brutally dispatch Harry’s friend Leonard (David Bradley), after the old fellow unwisely brandishes a knife while traveling through their “territory,” Harry realizes he can’t rely on help from a largely impotent police force represented by a well-meaning detective inspector (Emily Mortimer) and her cynical partner (Charlie Creed-Miles).
“Harry Brown” is the work of first-time feature helmer Daniel Barber, a Brit filmmaker who cut his teeth on TV commercials and earned a 2008 Oscar nomination for “The Tonto Woman,” a dramatic short based on a Western story by Elmore Leonard. There’s a discernible Western flavor to this drama as well, with Harry bearing more than a passing resemblance to the genre archetype of a long-domesticated fellow who must strap on his shootin’ irons one more time to face down outlaws. After he begins his one-man crusade, his experience as a Royal Marine comes in very handy while he’s gunning down armed miscreants or gaining necessary info through enhanced interrogation techniques.
To their credit, Barber and scripter Gary Young infuse the cliches with a fair degree of conviction. “Harry Brown,” like its eponymous hero, is a slow-burner — Harry doesn’t actually hurt anyone until a half-hour into the storyline — and the filmmakers don’t move too fast or push too far while building up to the action sequences. They’re especially impressive while ratcheting up suspense during a deliberately paced sequence that shows how Harry manages to acquire firepower before disposing of drug-addled gun dealers.
Barber doesn’t shy away from depicting violence, but he doesn’t dwell on it to a needlessly off-putting degree. He’s also subtle about getting across plot points that help define characters: Without beating viewers over the head, he provides ample explanation for why Harry might interrupt his guerrilla war, and actually risk capture, to aid a young woman near death after a drug overdose.
Although overlaid with a mood of despair that’s only partly relieved by a relatively happy ending, “Harry Brown” remains, for all its touches of gritty realism, a revenge fantasy about someone aptly described by another character as “a vigilante pensioner.” Still, the supporting cast — including many first-timers cast as young hoods — is solid, and the moody lensing by Martin Ruhe (“Control”) vividly conveys the no-hope squalor of a contemporary urban wasteland.
More important, Caine neatly balances ferocity and frailty, so that a viewer is never quite certain whether he’s up to completing the bloody business at hand. Caine often has evinced an ability to turn on a dime from tearful anguish to fearful rage. But he’s rarely had a role, or been in a movie, that required him to put that talent to such frequent use.