Forget his roles in Austin Powers and the two most recent Batman films, when I think of Michael Caine only one film comes to mind: Woody Allen's 1986 masterpiece Hannah and Her Sisters. Caine's Oscar-winning performance as an adulterous husband is the best work of his accomplished career, which includes Alfie (1966), Educating Rita (1983) and The Cider House Rules (1999). His most recent film, Harry Brown, released in late 2009 in Britain and awaiting release in North America, is entirely dependent on Michael Caine's quiet control. He has made a career out of playing quiet, brooding men with a restrained anger ready to escape. This is especially evident in Harry Brown, a much better constructed vigilante film than most, especially another Oscar-winner's attempt at vigilantism: Jodie Foster's The Brave One (2007). It is the first feature-length film by Daniel Barber, whose short film, The Tonto Woman (based on an Elmore Leonard story, responsible for the source material for and Get Shorty and Jackie Brown) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. The film also stars Emily Mortimer (Match Point, and a clever guest appearance on 30 Rock) and David Bradley (most well known for his role as Argus Fitch in Harry Potter films). Harry Brown is a well-conceived film with tremendous acting that is able to maintain its tense atmosphere well past the film's violent climax.
Harry Brown (Michael Caine) is a Royal Marine veteran from North Ireland who lives on the housing estate at Elephant and Castle in London. The area is quickly deteriorating due to the high crime and violence committed by young gang members. His wife is in the hospital and the most direct route is to take a public underpass that known for gang activity. Informed that his wife is about to die Harry chooses not to take the underpass and is unable to reach her before she passes. Although depressed by his wife's death and the increasing violent outside his home, Harry is unwilling to get involved. He spends his days at a bar playing chess with his friend Ben (David Bradley). The pub is run by Sid (Liam Cunningham), who receives money from the local gangs. Ben complains that the gang put dog feces through his mailbox and spit on him, revealing that he has told police who have not intervened. The following day Harry is visited by Detective Inspector Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and Detective Sargeant Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles) who tell him that Ben has been murdered by his own weapon, which would make the crime manslaughter of self-defense. Harry is incredibly upset by this and while walking home drunk from Sid's pub he is attacked by a gang member. His military training allows him to turn the knife on his attacker and he kills the young man. This experience makes Harry aware that Ben's death must be avenged. Harry goes to great lengths to protect himself and his neighbourhood and while DI Frampton starts to suspect him of vigilantism, Police Superintendent Childs (Iain Glen) is more concerned with drugs and gang wars. This leads to a brutally violent climax where many lives are put in jeopardy.
Harry Brown is a tense and harrowing thriller that highlights the negative effects of youth crimes. There is a growing number of British films with youths involved with drugs and violence which leads me to believe there is a growing concern in Britain about gang warfare. It is a social commentary that should make us all aware of our own neighbourhoods. While we do not have the right to commit acts of violence, we do have the right to live in a safe environment. Michael Caine makes Harry Brown one of the most sympathetic characters that I have encountered in a very long time. I may not agree with his actions but I was cheering for him while watching him torture a smart-mouthed kid. I found it very interesting that Emily Mortimer played the role of the police detective who uncovered the truth when she played the role of the oblivious spouse in Match Point whose husband got away with a murder when the detective was unable to prove his accurate hypothesis. Harry Brown is a well-paced and provocative thriller, led by the brilliant Michael Caine, that forces you to consider how you would react in similar situation.
My rating: 3 stars out of 4.