You’re going to feel a bit grimy after watching Harry Brown, an ode to vigilantism that may as well be called Death Wish VI: Bloodbath in Britain. Michael Caine, formidable again after somewhat loopy turns in films such as Is Anybody There? and Flawless, plays the recently widowed title character. When Harry isn’t gazing forlornly at the reminders of his wife in their modest apartment—Caine can project heartache even when just touching a pillow—he watches local punks and drug dealers from his window with more weariness than fear.
Refusing to be intimidated, Harry still goes for walks and meets his friend Leonard (David Bradley) for their daily chess game at the pub. Leonard, however, feels differently. Continually harassed by the thugs, he tells Harry that he’s “scared all the time”—and then pulls out a bayonet. Harry suggests that he talk to the cops instead. (Here’s where you hiss a “Yeah, right!” at the screen.) It’s not long before Leonard is murdered and Harry has nothing left but his rage and military experience. And so he goes all Charles Bronson, deciding to skip the concept of citizen’s arrest in favor of citizen’s capital punishment.
First-time feature director Daniel Barber sculpts a film that’s both bleak and rousing, with nearly every scene shot either at night or during the grayest of days. An attention-grabbing introduction captures the chaos of the baby-faced criminals’ actions with a camera that whips around during a disgustingly giddy, drug-fueled random shooting that might qualify as a drive-by if the shooters weren’t on a bike. Here the film also establishes its sensual soundtrack, which is especially effective in Harry’s apartment. He pulls on his inhaler, sighs deeply, pours water and plunks his teabag: all are exaggerated to a palpable degree. Underscoring the routine inside helps the chaos outside seem even bleaker.
Still, the initial violence isn’t nearly as sickening as what Harry encounters when he infiltrates the underworld: gaunt heroin addicts with track marks all over their bodies, living in a filthy apartment seemingly impenetrable by light. He spots homemade porn on the telly and a nearly dead girl on the couch, frothing from the mouth with a needle in her arm. Harry’s righteous anger is further fueled when the police do little but spout boilerplate reports and deny that an old man is capable of cleaning the streets.
But Harry’s focus becomes the film’s problem: he’s finally just too dark and precise. By contrast, Emily Mortimer plays one of the lead investigators into Leonard’s case with a stoicism that borders on sleepwalking. Moreover, the film offers not a a hint of Death Wish‘s campy self-awareness, only a self-serious, less layered version of No Country for Old Men‘s philosophical weightiness. Caine’s increasingly explosive ire doesn’t provide enough counter-energy to save Harry Brown from turning one-note and snoozy.