I’m trying to remember the last time I saw Michael Caine play the lead in a movie. Looking back, I think it was The Quiet American which he himself felt (and justifiably so) was one of his very best performances ever on film. Since then, he has been the supporting actor of choice in movies like The Dark Knight and Inception. The big joke around Hollywood now is if you can’t get Morgan Freeman for your movie, get Michael Caine. Those two guys are in just about every other movie being made right now. Still, we need a reminder every once in awhile of how truly great an actor Sir Michael Caine is. There are a number of good reasons why his career has lasted several decades having survived many dreadful films including Jaws: The Revenge among others.
But Caine did get indeed get the lead in a 2009 movie a lot of people in America never got around to seeing when it was originally released (including myself). That movie is Harry Brown, and I saw it as a double feature at the New Beverly Cinema along with a classic Caine movie called Get Carter. Both these films have the actor playing characters where violence plays or has played a big part in their lives. With Get Carter, Sir Michael played a professional killer who was almost completely amoral, yet you couldn’t help but like him a little. It’s almost tempting to look at Harry Brown as kind of a semi-sequel to Get Carter in that it makes you wonder what Jack Carter would have been like had he grown up long enough to become a senior citizen and if he would have been able to put his violent past behind him. Of course, for characters like these the past is always bound to catch up with them and it soon becomes a prologue for what is to come.
From the trailer, Harry Brown certainly does look like the British version of Death Wish, one of the most unforgettable movies about vigilante justice. But you could also look at Harry Brown being to Michael Caine what Gran Torino was to Clint Eastwood a couple of years ago. Each movie involves a character so uncomfortable with the changes going on around him and remains resistant to changing with it. There’s even a good dose of Eastwood’s Unforgiven thrown in for good measure as you wonder how deeply Harry Brown was shaped by his experiences as a marine.
Either way you look at it, Harry Brown takes the overused concept of a regular person who loses someone close to them, forcing them to take matters into their own hands when the police fail to help, and turns it into a very effective thriller that is surprisingly unrelenting in the intensity it generates. Seriously, this is actually a very bleak movie that puts you into the main character’s mindset and never lets you go. There’s no easy Hollywood cop out ending here like there was in Neil Jordan’s The Brave One; this one takes place in a world that is all too real to those who live in it, and the consequences hit you like a swift kick to the gut. You may look at Brown’s surroundings and say to yourself that you couldn’t pay me to live there, but we are stuck there while watching this movie, and there’s no easy way out.
So anyway, Sir Michael Caine plays the title character, a widowed North Ireland military veteran who finds his training coming back to him as he comes to confront those who murdered his best friend Leonard in such a cold and callous way while filming it to watch for their own frightening pleasure. It soon becomes clear to Harry that his days of being indifferent to the horrible goings on now are at an end, and he threatens to become even more lethal than those gang members he stealthily pursues. It also reawakens his training as a soldier which he uses to his advantage. The way Harry sees it, he and his men fought for something important, but these kids today are fighting for their own depressing amusement.
Caine continues to make screen acting look effortless for him, and even the moments where he doesn’t speak a word speaks volumes of what is going through his mind. We feel Harry’s pain over becoming so lonely without a soul to rely on, and we experience his state of mind completely thanks to his incredible performance. Like I said, we’ve seen this kind of character a lot, most of the time played by Charles Bronson, but Caine imbues his character with a wounded humanity that keeps him for becoming completely cold blooded. Even as he descends into violent acts of raw vengeance, we still can’t help but sympathize with Harry as we come to wonder what we would do if we unlucky enough to be in his position. We never catch Caine playing on the clichés that others would most likely fall into, and it makes you wonder if there is another actor (other than Eastwood) who would have played this role as well.
Harry Brown marks the feature length directorial debut of Daniel Barber whose only other project was the Oscar nominated short film The Tonto Woman. Filming at a council estate in South London, Daniel creates an unrelentingly bleak atmosphere that feels even darker than anything David Fincher came up with in Alien 3 or Seven combined. Just taking in the atmosphere that surrounds Harry and other residents drains the soul pretty darn quickly. The council estate featured in Fish Tank was far more charming in comparison. Instead of prettying anything up, Barber captures the hopelessness of a people stuck in a crime ridden area so far out of their control, and of frustration which drives the main character into action.
It’s clear from the get go that this is not your average Hollywood vigilante flick, and the violence featured in it is very brutal. The movie’s opening sequence features a very realistically staged gang initiation where a new recruit is made to do drugs and then gets beaten up to within an inch of his life. This is later followed up by a highly unnerving sequence where two gang members are riding along on a motorbike while filming their escapades, and one of them ends up shooting a young mother while she is pushing her baby in a stroller. From that moment on, you never feel safe. You feel the gunshots when they go off here, and it all becomes a race to see how much longer you can stay alive.
Director Barber also proves to be very masterful in setting up highly suspenseful scenes that are brimming over with tension. The best example comes when Harry meets up with two young guys to buy a gun, and both are clearly high on their own supply and hopelessly paranoid. You feel like the scene could explode any second, and I have to give a lot of credit to the two actors, Sean Harris and Joseph Gilgun, who play the drugged up dealers. Both of their performances are highly visceral of what someone would look like in their position, and both are very frightening in the scene they share with Michael Caine.
There’s also a very nice supporting performance here from the lovely Emily Mortimer, the same actress who I have to say stole my heart in Lars and the Real Girl. She plays Detective Inspector Alice Frampton who is at times empathetic to the suffering around her, and at other times quite serious about the work she does. It’s not your typical tough as nails female cop on display here which I found quite interesting. Frampton almost looks out of her league, but she quickly shows here that she keeps an open mind and considers every possibility without singling out anything based on preconceptions or stereotypes. Of course, being the smartest cop in the movie, no one listens to her. Then again had they, the running length of this film would be no different from The Tonto Woman.
Harry Brown is one of the bleaker movies I have seen recently, and while the trailers make you think we’re going down into familiar Death Wish territory, that is far from being the case here. Like my good friend who I saw it with, I still can’t get it out of my head as it was far more affecting than I thought it would be. I was expecting a solid B-movie at most, but there was much more to the story than at first glance. It marks a very impressive feature length debut for Daniel Barber, and it adds another strong character to Michael Caine’s long and varied career.
***½ out of ****