Making a film that genuinely conveys a sense of danger grows harder with each passing year. Not only are modern audiences inured to the shock of violence, thanks to the evening news and proliferation of viral video clips easily viewed online, but filmmakers are hard-pressed to conjure tales that are as original as they are daring.
Rare is the film that can sustain its shocks and present identifiable characters, in Hollywood or elsewhere. Harry Brown is merely the latest attempt at a grim, hyper-violent character study that, despite a marvelous performance from its lead actor, completely falls apart well before the credits roll.
Oscar winner Michael Caine stars as Harry Brown, a retired ex-Royal Marine whose days are darkened by sadness. As the film opens, he's just lost his wife Kath (Liz Daniels) to a prolonged illness. Shuffling between his simple flat and the local pub, drowning his sorrows in chess and conversation with good friend Len (David Bradley), Harry tries to keep his head up, despite the squalid, threatening conditions of his housing estate. Drugs, prostitution and violence run rampant, as the police appear powerless to affect any real change, only able to come along behind and sweep up the mess.
But just as Harry suffers the loss of his wife, he's dealt a second blow, as Len is cruelly murdered by local gang members in a breezeway just steps from Harry's home. The police -- Detective Inspector Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and Detective Sergeant Terry Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles) -- pursue a few paltry leads but can't bring anyone to justice. Fed up with inaction and determined to avenge his friend's death, Harry takes matters into his own hands, plunging deep into a world of unseemly activities.
Many, many critics have singled out Harry Brown as a British riff upon Clint Eastwood's sort-of-similarly-themed Gran Torino (the comparison doesn't quite work, if only because Torino is positioned as more a tale of racial understanding than a strictly revenge-minded thriller). Although there are flashes of Eastwood's film in director Daniel Barber's, I felt it had more kinship with recent effort like James Wan's Death Sentence or Neil Jordan's The Brave One (or, elsewhere on the cinematic reference shelf, Joel Schumacher's Falling Down or Mathieu Kassovitz's La haine). The feeling of tired familiarity doesn't help Barber's film, only furthering the notion that once the idea of Michael Caine kicking ass with a variety of weapons was hit upon, the filmmakers decided to stop there.
Harry Brown is an unassuming chap whose demeanor belies a ruthless killer, whose faculty with weaponry far outstrips that of his enemies. But that's where Gary Young's facile screenplay stops. Although Caine delivers a finely wrought performance, as is his custom, there's little to grab onto. Harry Brown is a thinly drawn character, whose twin blows -- the loss of his wife; Len's death -- are meant to be enough to drive him over the edge into an orgy of violence. Caine's performance does elicit sympathy, but it's more a function of the actor than the material.
Much of the supporting cast fails to rise to the occasion; there are a few terrifying exceptions -- noted British character actor Sean Harris, as Stretch, has an exquisite sequence involving a gun purchase; it's the rare flicker of life in Harry Brown -- but everyone appears hamstrung by the ineffectual script. Director Barber stages the whole affair under a scrim of harsh light and thick darkness, spiking it with handheld video clips that add an element of terror to the proceedings (including the harrowing opening sequence). It's almost enough to make one wish more of the film featured that kind of rough, gritty style. Much of the danger is art-directed right out of the movie; Barber's stark framing looks too stylish to be threatening.
Indeed, those intermittent flashes of what-might've-been can't redeem Harry Brown. What begins as a thin character study devolves into a sadistic spectacle by the time the brutal climax arrives. Caine turns in another sharp performance, but even his talents aren't enough to merit sitting through this bleak, bloody echo of other, better films.
Harry Brown arrives on DVD with a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Despite the film's murky aesthetic, the image never collapses into muddled chaos. There is fine detail evident in even the most dimly lit sequences, with the stark day-time scenes showing plenty of crisp clarity. Befitting a recently filmed production, there are no discernible visual flaws.
The English, Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack bursts to life intermittently, particularly in the film's final 20 minutes, as Harry Brown's world threatens to unravel completely. Gunshots have appropriate heft and presence, as does the extended riot sequence with its explosions and shouted confrontations. Still, even the more mannered scenes of dialogue sound vivid and clean, with no distortion or drop-out. Optional English subtitles are included.
Caine, director Barber and producer Kris Thykier sit for an amiable commentary track that stands at odds with the unrelentingly grim subject matter. Caine and his collaborators crack jokes throughout, hazard guesses about the then-impending Oscar race (Caine, in particular, is smitten with Christoph Waltz's performance in Inglourious Basterds) and occasionally point out a few technical details. It's odd, only in that the men's affable camaraderie sits in sharp contrast to the violent happenings on screen. Additionally, seven deleted scenes (presented in anamorphic widescreen) are offered, playable separately or all together for an aggregate of 17 minutes, eight seconds. A trailer gallery completes the disc.
Rare is the film that can sustain its shocks and present identifiable characters, in Hollywood or elsewhere. Harry Brown is merely the latest attempt at a grim, hyper-violent character study that, despite a marvelous performance from its lead actor, completely falls apart well before the credits roll. What begins as a thin character study devolves into a sadistic spectacle by the time the brutal climax arrives. Oscar winner Michael Caine, who stars as the titular character, turns in another sharp performance, but even his talents aren't enough to merit sitting through this bleak, bloody echo of other, better films. Rent it.