I ripped into the Liam Neeson action film "Taken" a few months ago, for being an especially slick revenge fantasy that used social ills for cheap dramatics and utterly failed to address any of the consequences of the main character's actions. Now this year, along comes "Harry Brown," a thematically similar vigilante picture that couldn't be more different in its approach. Where everything about "Taken" was polished and glib, "Harry Brown" offers a far more sobering glimpse of the ugly, unhappy circumstances that drive its hero to take the law into his own hands.
Much of the effectiveness of the film comes from Michael Caine, as the title character. We first see Harry Brown, an elderly pensioner, living a quiet, solitary life on a run-down council estate that is plagued with crime, vandalism, and drugs. His wife is in the hospital, for an unnamed illness that is progressively getting worse. His only friend is Leonard (David Bradley), another older gentleman from the estate who lives alone. During a meeting at the local pub, Leonard reveals that he's being tormented by a vicious gang of teenagers, and has taken to carrying around a bayonet for self-protection. The next day, Leonard is found stabbed to death, and an investigation is launched by the police, headed by Detective Inspector Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and Detective Sergeant Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles).
At this point, your usual Hollywood action picture would set Harry Brown, outraged and righteous, on a quick path to revenge for his friend. It's to the film's credit that this does not happen. Instead, Brown is frightened and depressed by the crime. It's only after he finds out that the investigation is running in circles that he starts looking into the matter himself. And it's only by accident that he commits the first act of violence against a would-be mugger. When Brown does become angry and starts to seriously consider vigilantism, he's not equipped to simply go out and start raising hell, either mentally or physically. There is plenty of blood and guts when the time comes, but the buildup is slow, and the film makes sure that we get a good, long look at the depravity and vileness of Brown's targets before he starts shooting.
"Harry Brown" is often deeply unpleasant to watch, because it spends so much time observing the young gang members and petty criminals who infest the estate. The opening shots follow a gang initiation and then the horrific killing of an innocent bystander "for entertainment," as Brown later remarks. Through arrest and interrogation scenes, the major perpetrators are fleshed out enough to uncover the roots of their misanthropy. However, they receive little sympathy from the filmmakers or from Harry Brown. Director Daniel Barber makes them living extensions of the surrounding urban decay, their presence associated with the worst graffiti-slathered eyesores and ravaged properties. The environment is otherwise pervasively gray and lifeless, and even the untouched buildings appear on the verge of crumbling into permanent dilapidation.
In such an environment, the audience might expect Michael Caine to give us a resurrection of one of the steely-eyed men of violence he memorably portrayed in "The Italian Job" and "Get Carter," but this never quite happens. We learn early on that Harry Brown was once a Royal Marine, but he's in no hurry to revisit that part of himself, reluctant to even acknowledge the experience. Caine imbues Brown with a deep weariness, often appearing brow-beaten, afraid, and adrift. When his anger does surface, we sense it's backed by years of unspoken pain. Even when a particularly deserving fiend meets his end, there's no pleasure taken in the act - at most, Caine only lets us see brief, transient satisfaction. Compared to other recent film vigilantes, Harry Brown has the most in common with Jodie Foster's heroine from "The Brave One," whose unlikely campaign of anonymous justice was also begun with considerable trepidation.
The script is very good, and I appreciated that the writers took pains to demystify so many of the usual vigilante film cliches, though it doesn't deviate much from the usual formula. Harry Brown suffers from emphysema, and he does not fare well when trying to chase adolescent gang-bangers around the estate. And despite his knowledge of how to handle weapons, it takes considerable effort for him to procure one. The police are not portrayed as incompetent or corrupt, but rather misdirected and badly led. Though the climax gets over-dramatic, the film maintains a tone of realism throughout that is admirable, especially as to how violence is portrayed. Up-close, wince-inducing, and absolutely repellent, each slit throat and gunshot is designed to make viewers recoil. There's no anticipation of the "hot, red, moment" other genre products often employ.
When "Harry Brown" is focused on its main character, the film is excellent. The trouble is, a good chunk of the story is given over to the police investigators, Frampton and Hicock. They serve the function of collecting up bits of exposition we otherwise wouldn't be privy to, and provide reaction to other events in the narrative. It's not that these sequences are extraneous or badly executed, but they are very conventional and uninteresting to watch. Emily Mortimer is also an awful miscast as DI Frampton, looking so gloomy and oppressed in all her scenes, it's a mystery why she wants to stay in her department so badly. The rest of the cast is serviceable, but the younger newcomers should be singled out for praise for providing a good deal of genuine menace.
I doubt that "Harry Brown" is going to win over mainstream audiences. Its violence and grittiness will be too much for the older crowd who might come out for Michael Caine, and it'll probably be too slow and too stark for the usual action-movie crowd. The film succeeds as a solid social drama and character piece, but as it's being billed as a vigilante picture, so most viewers will be expecting something very different. On the other hand, those who want to see a vigilante movie would probably benefit the most from watching "Harry Brown," and getting a brutally realistic, non-romanticized take on the familiar formula.