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Review: ‘Harry Brown’

Michael Caine on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge

Above: Michael Caine stars as a man bent on revenge in "Harry Brown"

Audio

Aired 5/21/10

These Days host Maureen Cavanaugh convenes the KPBS Film Club of the Air, and critics Beth Accomando, Scott Marks, and Anders Wright discuss "Harry Brown."

In the press materials, filmmaker Daniel Barber says, “I hope that everyone who sees ‘Harry Brown’ [opening May 21 at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas] will be entertained, but, it’s not the most comfortable piece of entertainment.” You can read my review or listen to our Film Club discussion.

I don't like comfortable films so I appreciate what Barber tries to do with "Harry Brown." It's a violent, brutal film about violence and about how people respond to violence. It doesn't pull any punches in terms of showing the damage violence does, not just physically to a victim but also the emotional and social damage when violence goes unchecked and people live in fear.

Michael Caine is Harry Brown, an aging pensioner, living in a rundown project, and facing life on his own after his wife has passed away. Brown keeps to himself and turns a blind eye to the youth violence that surrounds him. But then his best friend Leonard (David Bradley) is killed by some punks. The police come round to ask some questions and eventually they discover that Leonard had a weapon and had been trying to defend himself. The irony is that the police -- if they can catch the kids -- may have a hard time prosecuting the case because Leonard was armed. This finally provokes Brown to action and to take the law into his own hands.

Caine identified with Brown because both are ex-servicemen and both grew up in the East End. “I come from the slums,” Caine says in the press notes, “I come from a hard background, I come from a poor family and I was a soldier.” Caine affinity for the role comes through and he delivers his best performance in years. It’s a performance that reveals a man who is woken from a kind of slumber to take action but the action he takes raises moral questions about the way we choose to deal with violence.

Sean Harris and Michael Caine find themselves in something of a stand off in "Harry Brown"

Samuel Goldwyn

Above: Sean Harris and Michael Caine find themselves in something of a stand off in "Harry Brown"

What happens in “Harry Brown” reminds me of the line from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth:” “We but teach bloody instructions, which, being taught, return to plague the inventor.” In this case, the bloody instructions could be seen as beginning with Brown’s military training and then his service in Northern Ireland as a marine. When confronted with the violence near his home, Brown’s old military training and reflexes kick in. Early in the film, Leonard asks Brown if he had ever killed a man. Brown refuses to answer and suggests that such questions should never be asked. But later, Brown stands over a particularly vile drug dealer who has a stomach wound. Then Brown tells a story (you can hear the clip in our Film Club discussion) about watching a fellow soldier die from a similar wound, and it wasn’t pretty. That scene gives us a sense of the impact violence can have on someone’s psyche, the kind of scars it can leave and the kind of hardness it can create.

Later in the film, Brown resorts to torture and does so in terms that echo events in Northern Ireland. Again, you feel that the violence there only caused more violence. But Brown points out that at least in Ireland, people could be seen as fighting for a cause. But these kids, he says, seem to view violence as entertainment to be videotaped with cell phones. On this point and on the apathy of people who witness violence, “Harry Brown” actually has something in common with “Kick-Ass.” But in “Harry Brown,” each act of violence calls for another act of retaliation, says the female detective played by Emily Mortimer. She tries to be a voice of reason, asking where does the violence stop. I’m not sure if it’s a cliché or a reflection of the real world that it is a female character that asks this question of the violent males that surround her.

Emily Mortimer plays a female detective who questions the violence of the men around her in "Harry Brown"

Samuel Goldwyn

Above: Emily Mortimer plays a female detective who questions the violence of the men around her in "Harry Brown"

The political and social context in which “Harry Brown” is placed is what makes the film interesting. Or as my friend said, makes it, “’Death Wish’s’ smarter brother.” “Harry Brown” is on one level a revenge story, and that’s where the entertainment comes from. Revenge tales suck you in quickly and create quick identification with the protagonist as he seeks vengeance. Barber calls his film an “Urban western,” and in that respect it follows in the footsteps of films such as “The Outlaw Josey Wales” in that it is a journey to dispense personal justice for a wrong committed, and there are stand offs and showdowns along the way. But “Harry Brown” is also a film that questions that choice and asks if the vengeance sought is only prolonging the cycle of violence.

The answer the film serves up is where it falls short. This is a film that takes a hard-edged look at modern day urban violence and it sets its characters on a violent path. But Barber is unwilling to take his story to its logical conclusion. This film is begging for a brutal, bleak ending and instead we get a more reassuring one that allows us to walk away thinking that things are – if not all right – at least on track to getting better.

Michael Caine stars as "Harry Brown"

Samuel Goldwyn

Above: Michael Caine stars as "Harry Brown"

After seeing this film I immediately had to go out and watch Caine in “Get Carter.” Now that’s a film with the guts to follow its revenge tale to its logical and chilling conclusion. If Barber had that kind of bold commitment to his theme, “Harry Brown” could have been a much more effective and satisfying film.

“Harry Brown” (rated R for strong violence and language throughout, drug use and sexual content) is anchored by a splendid central performance by Caine and a circle of fine supporting ones. Barber finds compelling moments in his gritty tale but lacks the maturity to hit the point home in the end. But then this does mark his feature debut so maybe we can expect more with his sophomore film.

Companion viewing: “Get Carter,” “Kick-Ass,” “The Searchers”

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