Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Harry Brown

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for stories about bad-asses that have given up their violent ways, only to have circumstances back them into a corner where they have to murder defeat a hell of a lot of people.  That's the basic plot to almost every good martial arts film, let alone the Rambo series and countless other action movies.  But what how long can a bad-ass retire from bad-assery and still have what it takes to get the job done?

Harry Brown (Michael Caine) lives in a bad neighborhood in South London; he lives in a housing estate, which is the British version of a low-income housing development.  There is a lot of graffiti, youth gangs openly deal drugs and regularly assault people without provocation.  It's a generally scummy place.  Harry visits his comatose wife in the hospital daily, and then goes to the pub to have a few pints with his best friend, Leonard (David Bradley), over some chess.  Even there, though, social decay can be seen; the pub's owner, Sid (Liam Cunningham), gets kickbacks from drug dealers/stolen merchandise vendors.  To be honest, it's not a particularly sunny look on old age.
If time flies when you're having fun, I bet the clock hasn't moved in years.
A pair of unrelated tragedies shake Harry up.  First, Harry receives a phone call from the hospital, urging him to rush over for his wife's final moments; he leaves the house, but opts not to take the gang member-filled underpass that would save him time (assuming he doesn't get robbed, beaten, or killed) and winds up just missing her death.  Almost immediately after, Leonard tells Harry that he can't handle living in constant fear any more, and he has taken to carrying an old bayonet tip for protection.  The very next day, Detective Inspector Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and Detective Sergeant Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles) arrive at Harry's door with the news of Leonard's death.  Local gang members are suspected, but no charges are made.  With nothing left to lose, Harry (consciously or subconsciously at first) prepares to take out his frustrations on the scumbags that caused them.
You can't to the "That's not a knife..." bit if the other guy is senile
As luck would have it, Harry Brown used to be a Royal Marine who had fought in the urban areas of Northern Ireland forty years ago.  What can an elderly marine do against a youth culture that is starting to resemble the ultra-violence of A Clockwork Orange?  If nothing else, he can prove that an out-of-practice bad-ass almost always has the edge over hot-headed idiots. 
He may look grandfatherly, but he's not here to tuck you in

While I wouldn't say that the acting in Harry Brown is fantastic, there were no bad performances in the bunch.  Michael Caine can be awfully hit-and-miss due to his mercenary attitude toward taking roles, but he's good here.  His portrayal of Harry is a depressing one, and he is fueled less by rage and revenge (as is common in this type of film) and more by despair.  His gang member counterpart is played by Ben Drew, AKA British musician Plan B.  I thought he was pretty good as a thuggish nogoodnik, although his character wasn't particularly complex.  Emily Mortimer was fine as the only cop that actually figures out what is happening in the film, and she has more than her share of good small moments.  Her character's motivations seemed to be more than just doing her job, but no insight was ever really given to her character; I think that was a missed opportunity. This was the first time I had ever seen David Bradley outside of a Harry Potter film, and he was okay in his small part.  The only other actor that stood out to me was Iain Glen as an insincere and mildly incompetent superior police officer.  There were a number of small character roles for street thugs, but none of them were terribly developed.
Kids, don't do drugs

Harry Brown is Daniel Barber's first feature film, although it is worth noting that he received an Oscar nomination for his only other credit, a short film.  Barber did a good job with the cast, getting realistic performances out of a story that could have occasionally been over the top.  I liked the action in the film --- it looked good and painful, and none of the characters appeared to be accomplishing anything unrealistic.  I was surprised that my biggest take-away from the film did not involve Michael Caine's performance.  Instead, I was impressed by how frightening the youth gang members were.  The opening scenes, featuring a gang initiation and some random violence set the tone for the movie.

The only real problem I have with Harry Brown is that it is retreading familiar ground.  The obvious comparison is to Death Wish (the first one, not the ridiculous sequels), where a good man takes steps to fix what the law cannot (or will not) fix.  Harry Brown isn't as focused on its action sequences or the brutality of the hero (as in Man on Fire, Taken, Law Abiding Citizen, or Edge of Darkness).  Instead it focuses on the despair of the main character, kind of like Death Sentence.  Of course, this movie also features an elderly man killing a number of younger men on his path to vengeance, which is awfully similar to The Limey.
I've seen this scene before.  I bet the sleazy arms-n-drug dealer lives.
I'm totally okay with Harry Brown being just another revenge movie.  What I didn't like was the conscious effort to make this movie sad.  Harry's situation is hopeless and there is no real happy ending for an old man who is alone in the world, since he's unlikely to start over somewhere new.  Seriously, this feels less like a revenge movie and more like suicide-by-gang-member.  This isn't a movie that glamorizes or glorifies violence, either.  It's a fairly realistic look at the probable effects of vigilantism in a crime-heavy area.  While this makes Harry Brown unique, it also makes it one of the more depressing revenge movies out there.  It was well-made, but is kind of a downer.

When I discovered that the main thug in the movie was a British pop star, I checked his credits and found a music video from the Harry Brown soundtrack.  This is Chase & Status ft. Plan B - End Credits.  It's not my cup of tea, but it is very British.

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