The movie is set in the London projects -- or an estate, as it's referenced in the film. Drug gangs run the property, dealing in the open and terrorizing the tenants -- the opening scene is particularly terrifying and brutal. I wondered how a guy like Caine's character would be living in a place like this to begin with. The setting provides a perpetual state of loneliness, despair and the grim realities of life ... the sky is always overcast. Perhaps that tells us something about Harry.
Things are not going well for Harry. His wife is dying, his only friend, Leonard (David Bradley) -- with whom he plays chess over pints of ale in a dingy bar, a drafty old place where it seems like you always have to leave your coat on -- is being terrorized by the gangs at the estate, and he's revealed to Harry that he plans to do something about it.
He does, and it's not really spoiling anything to say that he fails, because this is the impetus for Harry's descent into vigilantism. There's a remarkable, and quiet, scene that involves Len's funeral. A procession of black cars with a hearse at the front, the word "Grandpa" painted on the window, approaches the place Len is to be buried ... and passes by, revealing only Harry standing at Len's grave, with a priest who is administering Len's final blessings. Heartbreaking.
From here, I found similarities to "Gran Torino" and "Get Carter," which Caine also starred in. Like Clint Eastwood in the former, Caine plays an elderly castoff who believes in the old-school way of doing things, and he has a fierce pride about him that conveys the fact that he can still do those things. The latter is also a revenge story, where Caine plays a contract killer taking revenge for the slaughter of his brother (Great trailer here!). But in "Harry Brown," Caine plays a character with more redemptive qualities and as a victim of his situation throughout, even though he calls on his experience from his younger days in the marines to take his bloody revenge.
There are some very good scenes here, including an unbelievably tense sequence where Harry goes to buy a gun from some despicable dealers. As he goes deeper into the bowels of this property, you feel as if he's creeping closer and closer to the bowels of hell. But as the scene unfolds, you can see Harry's character changing from being a helpless, tired old man to using his skills and tactical thinking forged in the military to handle this situation with viciousness ("You failed to maintain your weapon, son ..."), and then grace.
|Emily Mortimer and Michael Caine (Dean Rogers/Samuel Goldwyn Films)|
Ultimately, Harry's actions merge with the detectives' investigation and the rising violence of the estate, and everything escalates to frightening proportions. I felt the movie meandered a bit near the end, pulling away from Harry's story in favor of more of a commentary on the crime situation overall, but there's an interesting twist, a tense standoff, and a sufficient payoff to close things out.
What really makes this movie is Caine's performance. You can just put him in a scene, alone, with virtually nothing to do but put jam on his toast and get dressed for the day, and it will be enthralling. You never worry that he's going to wander too far on the dark side, because he conveys a strong sense of morality -- even if only on his face -- throughout.
The only thing I find worrisome is the immense satisfaction I get as Harry tears through this animalistic and subhuman culture, wielding his own brand of cold, hard justice.