Watching master of his craft Michael Caine is the only reason to see this unrelentingly grim British mash-up of Death Wish and Gran Torino. Watching Caine, however, as he starts out as a lonely old man who has lost his wife and best friend before gradually letting out the monster he had become as a British marine in Northern Ireland – a persona he locked in a box and put away years earlier – is almost worth having to sit through the glorified violence, graphic sexual perversity, an uncomfortably extended scenes featuring an array of nightmarish characters.
At 77, Caine’s quiet intensity in the many lingering close-ups rivets viewers as his character builds like a ticking time bomb to explosion point. Caine is the British equivalent of Eastwood as an actor, both men aging gracefully while the quality of their theatrical chops continue to grow and fascinate. However, Harry Brown the film is a poor imitation of the ground Eastwood trod in Gran Torino. While Gran Torino was a film about social growth and human interaction, Harry Brown little more than a revenge film with as much social depth as Death Wish 5.
While Caine is note perfect in his role, Emily Mortimer as the young police inspector who suspects his actions is completely miscast. Whenever she and Caine are on screen together, his mere presence dominates before any dialogue is spoken. Mortimer is physically frail, playing her part with long lank hair and scared eyes. In an early scene, a subordinate detective asks Mortimer’s character why she would volunteer to work in the hellish ghetto that is their beat. Mortimer tells him to mind his own business, but it is a great question that is never addressed – leaving her character rootless and floundering. Perhaps there were one too many scenes left on the cutting room floor.
The human landscapes in both Harry Brown and Gran Torino are as bleak as can be. Harry Brown doesn’t even have a lawn to keep people off. There is little hope and even less justice. But when Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski character makes his tragic sacrifice, it is completely selfless – his actions bring hope, bring strength, make a difference.
However, Caine’s Harry Brown is simply motivated by anger and despair. He has lost everything, wanting only to die after taking as much scum with him as he can. There is nothing redeeming in Harry Brown – he was a torturing hard bastard in the British marines, and he loses dignity by returning to this psychotic persona.
There is one telling line of dialogue in Harry Brown that cuts through the horror of the violence. Caught in the middle of a youth riot in a London slum, Mortimer’s police inspector tries to calm Caine down by pointing out they are not in Northern Ireland. Caine as Brown verbally explodes, agreeing and telling the inspector the people he fought against in Northern Ireland had a cause, something they believed in, something worth fighting for, whereas the youth rioting around them are simply doing it for entertainment.
One line of trite dialogue, however, no matter how well delivered, does not a movie make. If you are a diehard Michael Caine fan (I am) then wait for Harry Brown on DVD and use your remote judiciously.