Michael Caine stars as the eponymous Harry Brown in this council-estate-drama-meets-Death-Wish-thriller about an aging army veteran living on a nasty estate run by drug-dealing hoodies. After the death of his wife, his one comfort is his daily chess match in the pub with Leonard; but when it turns out Leonard is killed for standing up to the hoodlums who torment the local residents, Harry finally snaps.
The story is a simple one, a riff on the classic vengeance stylings once occupied by Charles Bronson in Death Wish but merged with the modern morality message of Gran Torino to create something that’s just a little different from both.
The nasty violence (or ‘Death Wish element’, if you will) doesn’t hold back. The cinematography and the bleakness of the estate transport you into a dark place and the feeling of being hauled into this hellish netherworld never relents. The culture of violence and mob rule is hammered home in the most obscene scenarios from a drug baron/rapist (a terrifying Sean Harris mutating Gary Oldman’s Drexl Spivey into a monstrous creation of this particularly wretched atmosphere) to police fleeing molotov cocktails flung by a riotous group of estate-dwellers.
The extremity of some of the violence, and of the lives of this council estate’s inhabitants, is slammed home to such an extent that you cannot but notice the message behind the film (or the ‘Gran Torino element’). There’s an attempt here to show the out-of-control situation in some of Britain’s most deprived areas, to remind everyone of the horrors that are often hidden away, and to identify with all of those who yearn to be able to do something about it.
It’s all very powerful stuff, but it’s slightly undermined by the sheen of the film. The glamour of having Sir Michael Caine on board, and the glossy cinematography the Caine-bloated budget brought with it, allows viewers to withdraw from some of the violence. There are exceptions, such as the scene in which a couple of high teenagers get on a moped with a gun and film themselves shooting a young mother for fun, but the creativity and sheer horror that drive moments such as this are too often subordinated to the creation of a cinematic feel.
Similarly, the casting of Caine himself removes some of the impact this story could have had. Not just because he is a recognised big name and therefore can’t must struggle to engrave a fresh image on viewer consciousness (in the way Sean Harris does, for example), but also because his age and physique make him difficult to believe as a vigilante – even accounting for his prior service as a marine.
Nonetheless, it’s a notch above many action films I’ve seen this year, and that it also works to highlight some dangerous societal elements today makes it all the more worthwhile in my view.