Harry Brown (2009)
By: Mr Intolerance on February 14, 2011  | 
Icon | Region 4, PAL | 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 5.1 | 102 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Daniel Barber
Starring: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Charlie Creed Miles, Leonard Attwell, Iain Glen
Screenplay: Gary Young
Country: UK
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Like all the best revenge films, Harry Brown is pretty straight-ahead plot-wise, but the moral angle the audience takes toward the actions of the protagonist reveals greater levels of complexity. Basically, we have to ask ourselves why we take so much satisfaction in watching what Francis Bacon once called "a kind of wild justice" (and justice is a pretty subjective term in and of itself) – murder, mayhem and such – when we presumably wouldn't want such vengeance rained down on our own heads, or even administer it ourselves. And it can't be denied that a good revenge film – Death Wish, Ms 45, or Dead Man's Shoes to name but three – is an extremely satisfying film to watch. Harry Brown is no exception.

Before we start, if some knucklehead has told you that Harry Brown is simply an English version of Gran Torino, ignore that, and then slap them. The similarities are superficial at best – an aging protagonist, an unlikeable gang people are too scared to fight back against – and that's about it. Gran Torino plays the comedy card too strongly at points in order to leaven its punches, where Harry Brown is a humourless, bleak and merciless film, which given its subject matter is exactly what it should be. Similarly Clint Eastwood's lovable curmudgeon is a much different character to the quietly dignified Harry Brown that Michael Caine portrays with such aplomb. Plus, the menace of the gang in this surprisingly violent UK film is much more visceral and real than that which we see in Gran Torino. Further to that, Harry Brown is a grimier film, lacking Gran Torino's gloss – and it's this grit that gives it much of its punch. Here endeth the comparison.

Harry Brown is an elderly ex-Marine who saw active service, for which he was highly decorated, in Northern Ireland during the height of The Troubles. But he doesn't like talking about it, even with his good mate Len – they mark time in the grotty, chav-infested suburb they live in playing chess in the local pub – Harry's got things closer to home to worry about. His wife is in a coma, and the housing estate he lives in is over-run with a gang dealing drugs, menacing the local populace, trafficking underage prostitutes, making pornographic movies with the addicts they get hooked on their produce. Several areas on the estate, such as the underpass where the gang congregate and blood their new members, are "no-go" zones, with non-gang members receiving severe beatings if they venture in. But worse still – Len's been getting dogshit pushed through his mail-slot, and is being verbally harassed in public to the point where he's started carrying a bayonet around with him. And considering the brutality contained in the opening scene to really ground the audience in the truly dreadful conditions on the estate, you can understand why.

Harry's wife Cath passes away quite early in the film, and the pathos Caine brings to his performance is genuinely moving and reminds you why this fine actor was knighted for his service to the screen back in 2000. Not too long after, poor doomed Len, unable to take the harassment any longer and finding the police unable to act, takes matters into his own hands, and is brutally slain by the gang, some of whom, it is later revealed, callously film the killing on their mobile phones. Harry has been suppressing the memories of what he experienced in his years as a soldier for a long time due to his love for his wife, but after a visit from DI Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer giving a performance that's static to the point of inertia – the one weak link in an otherwise good cast – having an expression like a wounded Labrador for the duration of a film is not emoting) and DS Terry Hicock to let him know about Len's death, much like Paul Kersey in Death Wish Harry finds that when the chips are down, you can really surprise yourself with what you are capable of. Muscle-memory is a hell of a thing.

At about the same time, the police start to roust some of the gang members, Noel (Ben Drew in an especially villainous role; he's also partially responsible for the excellent score), Carl, Mark, and Dean, dragging them down to the local nick for an interrogation into Len's death. The resulting interview scenes do nothing to engender any audience sympathy for these young thugs. Where bleeding heart lefties might bleat on TV or in blogs about how chavs are simply a product of a brutal modern society, the audience here, if they're anything like me, are watching this footage thinking, "Kill them. Kill them now." After all, we don't normally feel sympathetic to people who threaten to anally rape a woman, telling her she'd love it.

Again, like in any other good revenge story, Harry very soon finds out when the machinery takes over, scumbags get let off the hook through legal loopholes. After a brief visit to Len's now trashed and graffitied burnt out apartment, Harry works out that sometimes, when you need something done well, you've got to do it yourself. And for the audience, this is the point where the pot boils over. Harry visits Kenny and his mate, local villains whose interests seem to include growing loads of hydroponic pot, shooting up in the veins that haven't collapsed yet, selling guns and filming home-made porn with underage junkies.

"You've failed to maintain your weapon, son."

The scene that ensues is to me the centerpiece of the film, and a masterpiece of tension and action, and one I won't spoil for you, but it marks a line in the sand drawn between Harry and the scum, and also underlines his character's innate goodness and gentle heart, whereas the scum don't even care for each other. Also it shows that despite his age, Harry's still harder than a coffin nail.

Frampton's investigation into Len's death has been subsumed into Operation Bluejay, her slimy Superintendent's plan for a zero-tolerance approach to gun-related crime on the Estate. Harry, on the other hand, is furthering his more hands-on approach to urban crime suppression while trying to work his way towards Len's killers. Unlike Death Wish, where Kersey's vigilante action was more of an indiscriminate attack on street crime in New York City, Harry stays quite focused on the Estate, and specifically on the scum who killed his friend and generally make life untenable for anyone who lives there. Throughout the film we're shown random acts of violence towards equally random members of the community, committed by the gang members, usually viewed by an appalled Harry – and these isolated yet repeated acts of brutality remind us that despite his ruthless approach, Harry's fighting for the greater good (although not in the creepy way that phrase is used in Hot Fuzz).

Harry captures one of the vermin responsible for Len's death and tortures him until the perpetrator reveals that he filmed the entire episode on his phone. If you thought Harry was being a bit forward in his behavior up until this point, after a horrified, saddened and outraged Harry watches what happened to his very good friend, he ups the ante considerably, and like Marv in Sin City, starts killing his way to the top, albeit without that film's comic book approach. This is down and dirty, grimy almost 70s style downbeat film-making. The sequence where Harry sees the footage on Len's death on the phone is another reminder of the range of acting Caine is capable of – sadness to righteous anger at the flick of a switch, and done so in a remarkably credible manner, bordering on the truly frightening. Understatement in acting is a thing rarely mastered as Emily Mortimer displays here – but Michael Caine is all over it, to quote from The Simpsons, like Oprah on a baked ham. What Harry does next, down in the pedestrian underpass where Len was killed, has to be seen to be fully appreciated – it's downright ruthless.

But, you've got to remember that Harry's an elderly man, and also that every hero has their flaw – and so Harry is hospitalised for emphysema, but as his job's not done yet, you can imagine that he's not keen on staying there, and this brings us to our final act, which of course is where I'll leave to find out what happens for yourself. There's a lot of violence to be seen as the police move in on the Estate and Harry returns to finalise his vengeance and the criminals fight for their freedom, such as it is, there's also much justice to be meted out, and a remarkably tense last-stand that doesn't leave many of our heroes and villains upright and taking in nourishment on either side. There are still a number of surprises for you to witness, let me tell you.

The lack of tough-guy machismo strengthens this film's credibility – actions speak much louder than words, particularly when those actions are performed with a high calibre handgun. The only characters who talk a fight are loud mouthed braggards like Noel and his cronies – and they look like posturing idiots because of it. Shouting the word "fuck" every third word does not make one a man. Trying to make things better for others and not compromising your integrity on the other hand, does. The more I think about this film, and I've watched it three or four times now, the more I like it. The violence is quite strong, but never excessive or cartoonish, the change in Harry's character isn't as pronounced (or vaguely nonsensical) as that in Death Wish, and despite Harry's single-mindedness of purpose, we don't see him enjoying his duty – he performs it ruthlessly and efficiently, but when all's said and done it is exactly that – his duty.

Harry Brown is the best UK revenge film I've seen since Shane Meadows' awesome Dead Man's Shoes, or even Alex Cox's The Revenger's Tragedy. It's violent, impassioned and unflinchingly shows the kind of squalid urban decay that can be seen daily in housing estates the world over, and the corruption of social order that can occur when crime runs rampant in such a context. The vengeance taken by the main character is basically an externalisation of the justice we'd like to see taken against the kind of anti-social criminal scum that much of society hate, but are too scared to stand up to on a daily basis, and that the system simply cannot cope with, as in Death Wish. In fact, I do find that this film shares much in common with Michael Winner's definitive 1970s revenge epic, in terms of content, character and theme, and moreso than the aforementioned Gran Torino. But Harry Brown is very much a film with its own identity, and a lot of that comes down to Michael Caine's performance. This film comes recommended to you very highly indeed.
The picture quality is as good as you'd hope for a recent film, presented in its OAR, anamorphically enhanced. It's quite a dark film, but that simply adds to the film's grim tone. There are no bright vibrant colours to be found, and emphasises this sombre nature. I've read a few complaints about the CG used in the film, but I didn't find it intrusive, nor did it interfere with my enjoyment of the movie, as it sometimes has in other films.
More than adequate for the task at hand; particularly in the action scenes. However as half of the film – probably more – works on a more intimate, personal level, 5.1 and DTS did seem to be gilding the lily somewhat. The score, by the way, is excellent and definitely needs to be recognised for its impact on the feel of the film.
Extra Features
Yet again Icon disappoint with regard to special features. I've reviewed a number of Icon discs over the last few years, and while the films themselves are usually top-shelf material (off the top of my head, this film, The Broken, and Splinter all spring to mind), they consistently refuse to give genre films anything other than a bare-bones disc. What do we get here? Nothing. Not a single thing. Have a look at Lions Gate's US and UK releases – lots of Extras happening there, including a commentary, deleted Scenes, and interviews.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
This is an excellent film by anyone's standards. Harry Brown takes you on very dark ride into some uncomfortable places, but at the same time it also exhilarates, like a good revenge film should. Sure, you might walk away from the film thinking, "I never realised what a reactionary I was", but that's kind of the nature of the revenge flick: it makes you more keenly aware of your own idea of justice, and how sometimes the system simply can't deliver it. If for no other reason, watch it to see Michael Caine deliver his best role in some time. The only real problem is with the disc itself and its lack of Extras- who would pay for a bare-bones disc in this day and age?

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