In such films as The Cider House Rules and The Dark Knight, Michael Caine so comfortably assays the role of the avuncular mentor that its easy to forget his early work as a cockney badass. Despite being in his mid-seventies, Caine effectively harks back to his hard-case roles of past decades, such as Harry Palmer and Jack Carter, in the edgy revenge flick.
At first, Harry Brown could be a retread of Venus, the English drama built around Caines contemporary, Peter OToole. In both films, a cinematic legend plays a forgotten English pensioner who lives alone and hangs out in a tiny pub with his best mate, played by an actor best known to American audiences through the Harry Potter films. (In Harry Brown its David Bradley, who plays Hogwarts handyman Argus Filch.) Their scenes combine the camaraderie of old friends in their twilight years, laced with bitterness at the indignities the elderly routinely face.
Rather than rage against the dying of the light, Harry Brown opts to pump it full of bullets. Sociopathic drug pushers run rampant at Harrys housing estate, terrorizing the innocent and remaining out of reach of the law. Despite the sympathy of Emily Mortimers tough police inspector, Harry eventually resolves to put his experiences as a marine in Northern Ireland to deadly use. At one point he contrasts the Irish terrorists' violence with the local criminals, and says of the neighborhood scuzzos, "For them, it's entertainment." Perhaps the line makes the audience complicit in watching Harry Brown's bloodshed, but that might be reading too much into it.
Essentially Death Wish with an accent that drops its hs, Harry Brown holds few surprises for its audiences -- except that its such a compelling piece of exploitation cinema. Director Daniel Barber, who earned an Oscar nomination for his short western The Tonto Woman, manipulates the audience with undeniable intensity. The casting director particularly deserves credit for populating the film with such pungently hateful young thugs, junkies and scumbags. Sean Harris plays a cadaverous black marketer who radiates such a feral aura, you feel unclean just watching him.
Caine still retains such presence that the bloodthirsty muggers seem scarcely a match to him. Playing anger, Caines upper lip tends to disappear, conveying the threat of an attack dog on the verge of striking. Harry Brown succumbs to fairly threadbare law-and-order flick clichés that assume violence will eventually solve every crime problem. Nevertheless, Caines vigorous performance suggests that kicking ass has no mandatory retirement age.
HARRY BROWN. 3 stars. Directed by Daniel Barber. Stars Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer. Rated R. Opens Fri., May 21. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
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