Comparisons to Clint Eastwood’s turn in Gran Torino
will obviously be leveled at Harry Brown, both films being old-dudes-out-for-justice thrillers, but I think it bears far more similarities to Charles Bronson’s Death Wish
movies than Torino. Eastwood’s project is far more layered and bites off a lot more in terms of subject matter – issues of race, abandonment, and a father-son element between Eastwood’s character and his young neighbor are all dealt with varying degrees of success. Harry Brown, on the other hand, is a much more straight-ahead affair. Michael Caine’s Brown is played with a perfect subtlety and an incendiary rage bubbling just below the surface of his frail exterior, but his morality is never in doubt (nor the immorality of those on whom he turns his wrath). Contrast this with the racial epithet-spewing, callous Eastwood in Torino, who is uniformly unlikeable until pretty much the end of the film and whose character is far more nuanced than Brown’s.
Brown is an ex-Marine in his 70′s who lives in South London, an area that has become overrun with youth criminals. After his close friend is murdered and the police rendered curiously impotent (I don’t fully buy that a gang of molotov-wielding street youths is able to SCARE OFF a SWAT team that one imagines is trained specifically for situations like this, but who knows), Brown takes justice into his own hands and goes after the gang. Jack O’ Connell, Emily Mortimer, and Liam Cunningham turn in some decent roles, but this is Caine’s show through and through.
Visually, Harry Brown conveys the dirty feel of the housing projects quite well – it’s as though the camera lens has a slight streak of grease throughout the entire film (especially the night scenes) and it has one of the most jarring opening sequences I’ve seen in quite a while, depicting a particular act of mayhem in first-person, seemingly shot on a cellphone. It’s a pity that the style isn’t really used again after that scene, however. The Pete Tong-produced soundtrack adds to the atmosphere as well, and is suitably murky. I’ll admit that I swung my jungle towel a bit for the Chase & Status tune that drops over the credits too.
There’s no doubt that Caine’s performance makes Harry Brown, but personally I would’ve liked to see a little more nuance in the gangsters, drug dealers, and other seedy characters to whom he brings the pain. These guys are SO evil, SO unquestionably vile that the film loses me a little. Of course Brown does some horrible things to these people, but there is no moment where you wonder ‘has he gone too far’ because the gangsters are just abhorrent and devoid of any other personality traits than being evil for evil’s sake. It just comes off as a little one-dimensional. Charles Bronson mapped out this territory in 1974′s Death Wish (and it’s seemingly thousands of sequels) and Harry Brown seems largely like a retread of that film, but it does work as a decent thriller, and will seem a lot fresher to people who haven’t seen the Bronson flicks, if for no other reason than Caine’s stirring performance.
Harry Brown is currently in limited release here in Canada.