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Harry Brown

Director: Daniel Barber
Cast: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Charlie Creed-Miles, David Bradley, Liam Cunningham

(Marv Partners, UK Film Council, HanWay Films, Prescience Film Fund, and Framestore; US DVD: 31 Aug 2010)

In a way, all movies serve as fantasy fulfillment. Whether it’s applicable to a large or small demographic seems to be the only variation (Luke Skywalker is clearly made for everyone to get behind while Ewoks are mainly for children). Lately, even some of the bigger blockbusters are targeting a specific audience instead of the mass public. 


Just a few weekends ago, The Expendables tried to woo the ‘80s action audience while Eat Pray Love and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World aimed to please women and hipsters, respectively. Harry Brown, a British revenge picture with an unlikely star, may have been less financially successful than these hits, but its certainly not worse. It’s target: a mature audience.


First of all,Harry Brown is much more than Michael Caine’s audition tape for a role in The Expendables 2. In fact, there probably aren’t enough action sequences to make Caine a clip reel to send Mr. Stallone. This is primarily a drama with a few tweaks to add entertainment. 


Michael Caine plays the titular Harry Brown, an aging ex-marine whose friends are disappearing left and right. Not only is he a widow, but he lives in an extremely rough neighborhood plagued by young gang members looking for violent fun on a nightly basis. His friend Leonard (David Bradley) has had multiple problems with the hooligans, including fires set inside his apartment, but the police will do nothing. It’s clear that mere toleration can only last for so long.


The setup is ideally simple, but there are two major plot holes to get past. The first is a simple question: why doesn’t Harry move? If the apartment complex is horrific enough to constantly terrify him, why doesn’t he find another slum with less aggressive hoodlums? His financial status is never formally discussed and thus the audience is just supposed to believe this place is the best he can afford. This very well could be the case, but it would have been nice if other options (or the lack thereof) were discussed at some point. 


The second issue is how the film portrays the London police force. Police inadequacy is a common trope in movies focusing on vigilante justice, but this is completely ludicrous. Emily Mortimer plays D.I. Alice Frampton, and she’s the only officer who has a clue about how to do her job. Again, an audience might have gone along with things if the film would have argued the force is underfunded and ill equipped to protect this specific part of town. Yet the only explanation is a brief scene of the police ineptly interrogating a few suspects. You and I could have asked better questions and those ideas are what lingers once the scene is over.


The film isn’t meant to be taken as seriously as its subject matter could be interpreted. Though it’s extremely dark and gritty, Harry Brown is still mainly about the revenge of a 70-year-old man ala Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, and thus afforded some leeway with its diegetic rules. Violence goes hand in hand with the plot even if heroin needles and rape generally do not. Director Daniel Barber forces these hard topics to fit and they do. It changes the film for the better by making it more nuanced, real, and emotionally challenging.


Michael Caine improves the film, too, and in the same ways. He also exhibits its forgivable flaws. Caine does an extraordinary job with a role that mainly requires him to convince us he can muster up the energy to kill a human being. He’s done this before, but not in the same style since 1971’s Get Carter. Stallone, who replaced Caine in the remake of Get Carter, can pull it off because of his looks. Caine gets everything right, but lacks the physical prowess required for a few intense moments. This simply isn’t his scene, anymore.


As Caine huffs and puffs his way around the small apartment complex with his knife and gun, it’s hard not to imagine all of his elderly fans thinking maybe they could still do the same, too. While that may spur on their enjoyment of the film, it leaves the rest of us a bit flustered. After all, it’s tough to picture your emphysema-plagued grandfather running around in chilly London killing bad guys without rolling your eyes. With no slight to Caine, there are a few too many questionable moments to fully engage with the fantasy even if what can be believed is still surprisingly full of impact.


Though their actions are exaggerated, the characters’ problems are not. Plenty of people are put in horrible circumstances such as these on a daily basis and are left with few options to alleviate their worries. The film provides an adequate escape for anyone empathizing with problems similar to Harry’s, even with the aforementioned flaws. The performances are solid, environment authentic, and direction fluent. With five different production companies, it’s good to see the money went to the right places.


Unfortunately, they must have run out of funding for special features. Director’s commentary and deleted scenes are better than nothing (and better than average here), but the disc could even have benefitted from more of the conventional bonus goodies. In a movie with strong social messages, any feature furthering the conversation would be intriguing.


Also, the majority of the audience that watches Harry Brown most likely did so because of Michael Caine. Caine, though, does not appear on the disc outside of the movie (and its deleted scenes). Perhaps this was a nod to other members of his generation who do not usually watch the special features. Still, his absence on the extras is less than a fantasy fulfilled, even if his movie makes up for it.

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Ben Travers is an awards season analyst and prognosticator with a devout interest in all things film & TV. Mr. Travers lives in Los Angeles as an experienced writer and filmmaker with an extensive portfolio of coverage, including thorough reporting on the Academy Awards, weekly box office reports, and more reviews written than will ever be read. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa with degrees in both journalism and cinema.


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By Tricia Olszewski
10 Jun 2010
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.
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