Harry Brown (Michael Caine) is an elderly ex-marine living in a dingy English housing estate apartment. The escalating crime and violence has made Harry so frightened that he won’t even use the underpass near his home. Shortly after his wife dies, Harry’s best friend is murdered, prompting Harry to take swift and brutal revenge on the teenage lowlifes who have turned the neighbourhood into hell.
Harry Brown is a pseudo social-realism film wanting to be taken seriously and yet it is filled with grotesque cartoonish characters and a hysterical message celebrating violent vengeance. If Ken Loach ever directed a film based on a comic written by Frank Miller then the horrid mess that may result would resemble something close to Harry Brown.
The depiction of the young out-of-control criminals is absurdly over-the-top from the very beginning. Harry states that the young thugs simply do what they do for entertainment and the film is happy to exploit and then continue to perpetrate this nasty stereotype of the evil, predatory juvenile delinquency. This is finger wagging at the youth of today at its most extreme and reactionary. The young criminals are represented as either obscenely arrogant, aggressive sociopaths or pathetic, desperate junky scum.
However, the film truly reaches fever pitch when Harry confronts a gun dealer whose scarred and tattooed body resembles a cross between a zombie and Frankenstein’s monster. To then really reinforce the dealer’s evilness we see him stroking his over-dosing girl friend with a bloody syringe before using a gun as a makeshift crack pipe for himself. Any shred of credibility that the film had is obliterated by this comically perverse sequence.
The audience are repeatedly told that the police never do anything and yet we are shown no evidence that this is the case. In fact the main police character D.I. Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) seems to be doing quite a bit and her non knee-jerk reaction investigative procedural approach to police work actually seems to be very effective. Nevertheless, Harry’s actions are continuously depicted as justifiable and the conclusion of the film leaves no doubt that the filmmakers want us to feel that his actions are righteous and worthy of vindication.
Harry Brown is nothing like Caine’s classic gangster film Get Carter, where the audience weren’t supposed to like the character and endorse their actions, nor is it anything like Gran Torino, which was a film about redemption, bridging cultural divides and examining the influence of gang culture on vulnerable young people. Harry Brown is cinema for outraged talkback radio callers and tabloid readers as it revels in blatant fear mongering.
Michael Caine is great but at this stage of his career he deserves much better material. While some people may be able to laugh at the film’s hyperactive representation of youth criminality and just enjoy it as a dumb revenge film, it is depressing to think that there will also be people who confuse it for documentary and endorse its vicious outlook.