Michael Caine is a badass. Anyone who’s seen Get Carter (the original, not the Stallone abomination) is well aware of just how downright sadistic and intense the actor could be in his prime, but, as he so gleefully demonstrates in the super violent and ultra-dark vigilante drama, Harry Brown , Michael Caine is as menacing and imposing as ever!
Harry Brown opens with one of the most disturbing and hyper-realistic depictions of senseless violence I’ve seen in a film, with a pair of punk teenagers zipping about a London housing project and videotaping their exploits. They pass a young woman pushing a stroller, and one of the teens produces a gun, and begins to fire at the woman. One of the shots hits the woman, killing her instantly, and the punks flee on their bike, only to be plowed into by a lorry. The video camera catches it all, and establishes the world in which the ex-marine pensioner Harry Brown (Caine) lives; a bleak, impoverished side of London, where young drug-dealing street toughs rule their housing projects, terrorize its inhabitants, and make life especially miserable for people like Len (David Bradley), a doddering pensioner who is also Harry’s only friend. Len’s been having it especially tough of late, but, as he complains about the punks in the projects over a game of chess at the local pub, his grievances fall on deaf ears as Harry’s still consumed with grief over the recent passing of his wife. Len promises to take matters into his own hands, and Harry, seeing his friend’s outburst as so much bluster, encourages his friend to take the matter up with the police, and returns home to his empty flat to sleep in his empty bed.
The next morning, Harry is awoken by a knock at the door. A young police investigator, Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer), informs Harry that his good friend Len is dead, his body found beaten and stabbed beneath the subway that Harry’s so careful to avoid these days. Harry is devastated, but Alice assures him that they have suspects and that the killers will be brought to justice, so he takes small solace in her promise. Still, without his wife and friend to occupy his time, Harry finds himself noticing just how desperate the situation has become in his neighborhood, and, when it becomes apparent that the men who killed Len will most likely go free, Harry decides to finish what his friend started.
While Harry Brown has been getting major kudos for Caine’s bravura performance (and rightfully so), make no mistake; this is not your typical award season fare. Harry Brown is an extremely violent, exceptionally gratifying vigilante/revenge thriller that just so happens to be headlined by one of the greatest actors in the history of film. It’s bloody and brutal exploitation cinema classed up by association, and it’s fantastically entertaining stuff. It’s also refreshing to see that Caine and director Daniel Barber aren’t trying to overcompensate for his age (ala Bronson in the later Death Wish films); his Harry is somewhat frail, and suffers from emphysema, forcing him to use less conventional methods of dispatching his victims. Giving him a military background (Harry served in the marines during the British occupation of Northern Ireland) lends believability to the character’s actions and abilities, and also serves to fuel some of the film’s most sinister moments. There’s a great scene in which Harry relates a particularly gruesome war story to a mortally wounded drug dealer, giving the dying man a fairly graphic description of what he can expect from his injury. Caine recites the lines with a sleepy-eyed, almost detached delivery, as if someone had suddenly flicked on the “soldier” switch within him.
If I have any issues with Harry Brown, it’s got to be Mortimer’s character who, while obviously meant to serve as the film’s moral center, is not at all interesting or particularly well-fleshed out. Her scenes without Caine only bog the film down, with interactions with her co-workers and superior that are strictly “cop movie 101” stuff. She’s good in the role, and I wouldn’t excise her character completely, but I’d have rather spent more time with Harry.
Sony brings Harry Brown to Blu-ray in a crisp and nicely composed 2.35:1 transfer. It’s not a particularly colorful film, but that’s wholly an artistic decision as Barber notes in the commentary that he was going for a particular look, here, painting Harry’s London in muted hues of gray, brown, and olive green. It’s a drab aesthete, for certain, but that’s precisely the point. Detail is quite strong, especially in close-ups of faces and clothing, while the deep blacks lend the picture a nice sense of depth, even if it doesn’t necessarily pop off of the screen.
The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack is a bit tough on the ears as much of the dialogue is so softly spoken or muted that I found myself straining to hear what was being said when playing back the film at an “acceptable level” (ie; what the wife let me listen to it at). This made things especially troublesome as gunfire and explosions and the film’s Spartan score were positively deafening at the very same levels! I suppose that I could have nudged things a little higher and experienced the film “cinema style” but there are times when you just can’t be rattling the floorboards!
Extras are few, but the commentary with Caine, Barber, and producer, Kris Thykier is an enjoyable listen, with the three providing for an engaging conversational track that helped me appreciate the film even more. Also featured are some deleted scenes and trailers for other Sony releases.
Fans of old-school Michael Caine flicks will love Harry Brown, as will the Death Wish/Vigilante enthusiasts looking for some extra gratifying and gory action. The Blu-ray from Sony is solid, overall, but loses points for the lack of extras and schizophrenic audio mix. Still, seeing Caine back in ass-kicking action gear is well worth the price of admission, making Harry Brown an easy recommendation.