For those of you who ever watched The Dark Knight and wondered what it would be like if Alfred stepped in Bruce Wayne’s shoes, Harry Brown is your chance to find out. And here’s a mini-spoiler: it’s awesome.
Harry Brown (Michael Caine) is an ex-Marine senior who’s grown disillusioned with the pervasive gang violence in his town. In the first few scenes, Brown looks out his window at a graffiti-covered tunnel, where youth are collecting to sell drugs and hustle. He is at first reluctant to go anywhere near these folks. But when his closest and only friend Atwell is killed by a murderous crew, Brown resorts to his own methods to stop the injustice. To begin with, he’s got to purchase a gun or two, which entails him knocking on the door of a hoodlum and asking to “do business.” So begins the second act, when Brown enters the world of violence and engages in actions he left behind decades prior.
Harry Brown can count Michael Caine as one of its key strengths; the script simply seems like it was written with him in mind to play the lead. He occupies each frame with a heavy, brooding presence, bringing to life the story of a man who necessarily transforms from quietly troubled to dangerously indignant. And it’s when he’s angry that his performance is the most enthralling. Knives, guns, whips – this old man employs them all – and menacingly.
Caine’s presence is such that one might even forget how linear the storyline is, taking the form of a classic script: obstacle, protagonist must change, resolution. There are also some slow scenes that don’t achieve the gravity they strive for, particularly ones between Brown and the cop (Emily Mortimer) in charge of solving Atwell’s murder. But this is countered by other scenes where Harry Brown is seeking vengeance, or where the cops are interrogating gang members. The dialogue here is particularly compelling, each thug brutal and acerbic in his own way. All that the police can do is resort to their practiced interrogation techniques and shrug in the face of persistent malice.
On a broader level, the film is a sobre reflection on societies that have become rife with street violence and the ineffectuality of police, who by law cannot resort to the same forceful yet effective methods to stop it. Their uselessness is apparent when their priorities move from solving the murder of Brown’s friend Atwell to putting an end to greater gang violence as a whole, a police film cliché that would induce eye-rolling if it weren’t so well framed within this particular socio-political context. The gratuitous street violence is not only brutal, it’s frighteningly prevalent. Atwell warns Brown that even the pub in which they’re playing chess (as we imagine old codgers might do) is run by a bartender complicit in the drug peddling. Sure enough, we see that Atwell may have had a point.
One can’t help but feel though that this movie gives older generations all the fuel they need to lambaste society’s youth. And sure enough, gang violence is repugnant. But the fact that we hardly see any law-abiding youth might give a false impression to elderly viewers, who already think that simply toughening up laws will do much in the way curb delinquent behaviour. The film’s social commentary, then, is superficial. Is harder punishment a possible solution? Are the nation’s schools failing their youth? Harry Brown seems to ask a lot of these questions, all the while avoiding any attempts to muse at possible solutions.
Verdict: A gritty vigilante tale full of visceral thrills but lacking in the depth that would make it a classic.
3.5 / 5