Screenwriters: Gary Young
Starring: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Charlie Creed-Miles, Ben Drew, Liam Cunningham, Iain Glen
Running time: 103 mins
"Sir Michael Caine dispenses justice in Daniel Barber's Urban Western," proclaim the press notes for Harry Brown. No, Caine's senior citizen isn't making his enemies watch Jaws: The Revenge, he's on a murderous rampage against chavs on a crime-stricken council estate. Director Barber, who was Oscar-nominated for his short The Tonto Woman, cajoles a soulful performance out of Caine, a "get off my lawn" turn akin to Clint Eastwood's angry Gran Torino pensioner, but the film itself preaches some uncomfortably extreme solutions to dealing with misbehaving hoodies without getting to the heart of the issue. Harry Brown could easily have been scripted by the staff of the Daily Mail with a helping hand from Jeremy Kyle.
A retired widower, Harry passes the time playing chess in the pub opposite his best friend Leonard (Bradley). The duo lament the decline of society, with youths running rule over the estate they live on. Drug dealing is rife, and the pair are often too frightened to leave their homes. It becomes too much for Leonard, who arms himself with a bayonet blade and tells Harry it's for protection. Soon after he's found dead, brutally stabbed with his own weapon. Distressed, Harry spends a night getting drunk and, on a staggering walk home, accidentally shanks a drug dealer. The killer instinct honed from his time in the Marines returns, and Harry sets about taking down the young kids responsible for his friend's death with surprising precision for an OAP with emphysema.
Director Barber displays an astute cinematic eye (and ear) in Harry Brown. The opening scenes, filmed as if from a mobile phone camera, are hard hitting and the housing block towers that frame the story's location make an effective concrete prison. Likewise, the sharp sound design, noticeable with echoing water dripping from taps and the scraping of butter on toast, highlight the loneliness Harry feels in his flat. It's in Gary Young's script, though, that Harry Brown collapses through implausibility in its Broken Britain backdrop. The filmmakers seem intent on getting across the message that society is letting down people like Harry and the youths he hunts, but their joyous celebration of vigilantism presents a remedy that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Caine's The Dark Knight asked much more pertinent questions of lawlessness, and that movie emerged from the big budget Hollywood hit factory.
When it's not wallowing in gloom and acting as a terrible advert for old age, Harry Brown has a penchant for the sensational. Barber gores up his death scenes with CG blood splatters and in one of many gratuitous sledgehammer shock moments, shows a boy being abused by a heroin dealer before Harry blasts the criminal's head off. Also problematic is Barber's gritty tone never quite meshing with these over-the-top acts and the villains (spearheaded by Ben Drew's scowling Noel) struggling to break free from stereotype. There is a far better contemporary UK Western than this, with antagonists that have a shred of humanity and without awkward social commentary: Shane Meadows's Dead Man Shoes.
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