By Kevin Kelly (reprinted from 3/24/10 -- SXSW Film Festival)
I'm beginning to worry about American audiences. Or rather, I'm beginning to worry more about American audiences, and Harry Brown is a good reason why. Why is that, you ask? Because we're starting to treat violence as a sport that's meant to be enjoyed and cheered along. It's not Michael Caine's fault, and I'd like to think that if you ask him, he'd say the same thing. Which isn't to say that he doesn't kick a lot of ass in this film. He does, and at 77 years old, he still looks impressive doing it. More than some of the current generation of young action wannabes.
But the problem isn't Caine. Either we've become so desensitized to onscreen death that it's no longer shocking, or we want characters to have revenge so badly that when it actually happens, we clap with delight. That's what happened in a full-house screening of Harry Brown at SXSW when audience members erupted into applause as Caine plunges a knife into the chest of a junkie, and they probably missed the shocked look on Caine's face during that scene: he appears to be just as surprised as the junkie he's stabbing.
Harry Brown is a movie about one man fighting back against the onslaught of gangsters in his formerly quiet neighborhood in the dregs of London. He's a retiree living in a small flat, and his brightest moments are when he visits his ailing wife in the hospital and his friend Leonard (David Bradley) in a local pub to play chess. But where Leonard rants and raves about the goings on, Harry quietly keeps his head down and urges restraint. He avoids the local subway because it's overrun with hoodlums, even though it offers a much shorter route, and this costs him being with with his wife during her final moments.
But things take a sharp turn when Leonard brandishes a bayonet and tells Harry that he's going to take matters into his own hands. He soon winds up dead, and this pushes Harry past the limit. It isn't long before he finds himself tailing a local junkie back to his lair, and he asks them where he can buy some guns. It turns out they deal in firearms as well, and in one of the best scenes in the film they bring him into the bowels of their dark den and do business with him. It's a chilling scene where timid Harry is face to face with a tweaking drug lord who has pupils as big as saucers. You barely except Harry to survive the verbal exchange, let alone get out of there.
The rest of the film chronicles Harry's vigilante exploits against the criminal elements in his neighborhood, reaching a fever pitch when he discovers cell phone footage of Leonard's murder. Two detectives are beginning to suspect that Harry may be involved with the local murders somehow, yet lack evidence and are also commanded by a superior who doubts that a man as old as Harry could be involved at all. This all spirals towards a riot in the neighborhood as the police think the local thugs are responsible for the killings, and come after them in full riot gear. In addition to all this, there's an unexpected twist near the end, which ratchets the action up quiet a few notches.
Michael Caine is excellent in this role, playing both quiet Harry and dealer of justice Harry both believably and with hubris. I won't argue that it's very satisfying to see him on a wild revenge tear, but just don't expect me to applaud when he murders people in cold blood, no matter how much they deserve it. Emily Mortimer is adequate as one of the detectives, but Charlie Creed-Miles shines as her young partner. You might remember his as Ian Holm's assistant in The Fifth Element, and he does a great job as an exasperated cop on the beat. Ultimately, Harry Brown is very satisfying with a terrific performance from Caine. In a nearly unrelated tangent, the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes comes out on DVD and Blu-ray next week, but if you want to see Caine as one of the best (and funniest) Sherlock Holmes' ever performed, check out Without A Clue. You'll be glad you did.