Setting itself against the backdrop of Britain's youth crime epidemic, with a venerable, aging icon (Sir Michael Caine) at it's center as a peaceable man with a violent past, Harry Brown has invited comparisons to Clint Eastwood's sleeper hit Gran Torino. But while that film took great pains to explore the cyclical nature of violence, the entrenchment of bigotry, and the painful disconnect of a man to whom time had simply passed by, Guy Hibbert's workman-like scripting on this transatlantic cousin lacks any such insights or ambition, elevated only by an captivating performance from Caine and some remarkably assured direction from Oscar-nominated shorts helmer Daniel Barber.
More like Death Wish for seniors, Caine's portrayal of a man clearing out the infestation of despicable, ultra-violent 'yoof' from his London council estate settles at the level of a reactionary rallying cry for Daily Mail readers; a right-wing wish-fulfillment fantasy; an exploitation movie for disillusioned Tories on the eve of a hotly contested election. That said, damn if it isn't immensely enjoyable. Now well into his seventies, with more an a hundred films under his belt, Caine spent much of the noughties in a supporting capacity, often lending himself to the role of the resolute rock that the self-doubting hero turns to for guidance (see the likes of Children of Men, The Prestige, Batman Begins). Age has granted Caine a certain stillness, and his presence exudes the kind of quiet authority and subtle air of danger that makes his transformation from mild mannered old codger to gun-toting vigilante entirely convincing.
Eager to mind his own business Caine's Harry is anything but confrontational, careful to avoid the vicious gangs that plague his neighborhood, mourning the death of his wife over a game of chess down the pub with Leonard (Bradley), his only friend. When Len is murdered in yet another random, senseless act of violence Harry embarks on a bloody campaign of violent retribution. Typically, this would be the point at which the soapbox is brought out, and the inevitable messaging about the ills of society begins. No so here – again, Hibbert's script simply isn't that complex – and instead Barber gives us a slow-burning build of steadily mounting pressure that's more stylish and sharply unnerving than material of this nature has any right to be.
Anchored by Caine's knowing, steady performance, Harry's break isn't so much a snap as it is a slow descent into an urban heart of darkness. Employing a soundtrack built on wild, ambient, industrial noise that's nothing if not relentlessly uncomfortable, Barber absolutely sucks the very life out of this neighborhood. His exteriors are torn down and shambolic, while his interiors – notably a drug den/sex dungeon/arms stash – have a grimy coating not unlike something left over from the Saw franchise.
This is a world where not only are there no easy answers, but also no hope, characterized by ineffectual police (Emily Mortimer doing her best in a thankless, underwritten role), MP scandals, and lowest common denominator television. Shielded by an inadequate, antiquated justice system each underage hooded hoodlum Harry encounters is more despicable than the last, making his unorthodox final solution of barbed wire nooses and a bullet to the gut at the very least understandable, if not mildly appealing. A message film ultimately with no message, elevated to greatness by a terrific double-header from it's star and director, Harry Brown is shameless in it's sympathetic handling of what is, in all honesty, borderline fascism, but it's likely the very best movie-of-the-week you will see this year.
Starring: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Ben Drew, David Bradley, Liam Cunningham, Charlie Creed-Miles, Jack O'Connell
Director: Daniel Barber
Runtime: 103 Minutes