Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"Harry Brown" (2009)

Starring Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer and Charlie Creed Miles
Written by Gary Young
Directed by Daniel Barber
Rated R - Language, violence, drug use
Running Time: 103 Minutes

Harry Brown [Blu-ray]Harry Brown (Michael Caine) lives a solitary life just outside of London in an apartment complex that is slowly devolving into a violent cesspool.  Every day, Harry walks from his apartment to visit his dying wife in the hospital.  On his way, he passes a pedestrian subway, covered in graffiti and full of rowdy street gangs. 

After the death of his wife, Harry spends most of his time drinking and playing chess with his friend Leonard (David Bradley) at a local bar.  One day, Leonard tells Harry that he's afraid of what their neighborhood has become.  The gangs are out of control, and the police are nowhere to be found.  Not long after, Leonard winds up dead - stabbed to death with his own knife he carried for protection against the gangs.

With his wife and his best friend gone, and the police unable to crack the gangs, Harry decides to take matters into his own hands.  He purchases a gun, and starts on a plan to clean up the neighborhood and get revenge on the men who killed Leonard.

"Harry Brown" is described on Wikipedia as an "action drama," but this description seems... inaccurate.  Drama, sure.  Action?  Not so much.  Sure, there's some violence, but for the most part, "Harry Brown" is actually a slow-burn with a few quick outbursts of shocking brutality.  The film is extremely quiet, with most of the dialogue spoken in hushed tones or whispers.  Combined with the cold color palette, and "Harry Brown" is obviously keenly composed to elicit an atmosphere of loneliness and desperation.

Michael Caine is, as usual, excellent in the role.  Caine really is a screen legend, able to pull off any number of characters.  Here, he's very subdued, and he really sells Harry's loneliness.  He looks like a man who's simply tired of life, knows that he has very little left, and knows exactly how he's going to use it. 

Unfortunately, Caine's performance pretty well overshadows everything else in the film.  While it's still a good film, none of the other characters are really fleshed out much.  The gang members are stock evildoers, driving around killing and maiming indiscriminately and without remorse.  This makes them an effective antagonistic force, but ultimately they're nameless thugs for Harry to murder.  The police characters are likewise simplistic.

The ultimate twist of who is responsible for the rise of gang violence in the neighborhood is kind of ridiculous, but "Harry Brown" is still a good film.  I won't fault it for not being able to follow through when the rest of it is pretty engrossing, if simple.  The film also shows some of its low-budget origins during the riot at the end.  Though we're supposed to believe that the entire neighborhood is tearing itself apart, there are only about a dozen or so police officers to be seen.  It's minor, but it can break the illusion.

So while "Harry Brown" has a few cracks in its armor, it's still a good revenge drama, the absolute high point of which is Michael Caine's excellent performance as the title character.