Most people will take one look at the premise of Daniel Barber’s “Harry Brown” and immediately liken it to a British version of “Gran Torino.” The two films certainly share a lot of similarities – both are about older men battling a gang of young punks, and both star one of the greatest actors of their generation – but where “Harry Brown” differs is in the violent behavior of its title character and his victims. The end result is a little more like “Death Wish,” and although it may be difficult to imagine someone as mild-mannered as Michael Caine in a vigilante role, it’s exactly what makes “Harry Brown” so damn entertaining.
You wouldn’t think he was even capable of such violence when you first meet Harry Brown (Caine), an army veteran whose days consist of meticulous visits his sick wife in the hospital and playing chess with his only friend, Leonard (David Bradley), at their favorite pub. But when his wife passes away and Leonard is killed by some local street thugs who had been harassing him for months, Harry finds himself all alone in a town dominated by crime. After the police detectives (Emily Mortimer and Charlie Creed-Miles) assigned to Leonard’s murder case fail to catch the kids involved, Harry takes it upon himself to track down those responsible and teach them a lesson in how to treat your elders.
It’s been a while since Michael Caine played the part of the action star, and while he’s not doing anything too physically demanding as Harry Brown, it’s a nice throwback to his earlier films. He’s like Jack Carter with an AARP card, and though he may seem harmless at first, once Brown picks up a gun, he immediately becomes the most dangerous man on the block. Only an actor like Caine could provide the gravitas needed to sell such a potentially outlandish role, but once you accept him as someone capable of committing such acts of violence, it allows for some of the more darkly comical moments to exist without coming off as parody. Unfortunately, Caine is the only bright spot in the cast. Emily Mortimer doesn’t have very much to do as the detective suspicious of Brown, while Liam Cunningham is underused as the owner of the pub.
That’s hardly the fault of the actors, however, as the film is primarily designed as a vehicle for its lead star. Some might even consider first-time director David Barber lucky for landing such a great actor to play the title role, but Barber brings his own strengths to the project as well. The decision to open the film with gritty handheld footage of an innocent woman being gunned down in the park is both unsettling and necessary to setting the stage for the story that follows, while Brown’s back-alley meeting with a couple of drug-addicted gun dealers makes for one of the most suspenseful cinematic moments in recent memory. This is the kind of movie that not only gets your heart beating, but spurs applause from the audience with each vengeful kill. It’s definitely not one of Caine’s better films, but “Harry Brown” is a real crowd-pleaser nonetheless.