by George Sax
Through the first half of this mechanical, simple-minded revenge melodrama, it seemed possible that star Michael Caine was going to be able to fight it to a draw, to salvage something for audiences. Somewhere around the midway point, though, it becomes unavoidably obvious that even Caine’s impressive resources aren’t enough to stem the tide of the movie’s deadening banality.
Harry Brown’s flimsy claim to individuality is that its vigilante avenger is a pensioned-off former British marine, a recent widower living uneasily in a large public housing project. This facility is under siege by a gang of cretinous, aimlessly violent, drug-dealing young men. Curiously, Harry doesn’t seem to know anyone in this starkly alienating neighborhood except the mate with whom he plays chess in a local tavern. When this man is senselessly murdered by gang members, Harry, the soft-spoken old soldier, goes off on a Death Wish mission to destroy the perps.
The movie’s “pitch” relies almost entirely on this minor alteration in the standard formula for this kind of thing. A couple of years ago Clint Eastwood played more extensively with it in his sentimentally manipulative Gran Torino, basing his movie on unusual personal relationships rather than one small plot gimcrack and the kind of violent enactments this movie relies on.
Other than Caine’s performance, director Daniel Barber and scripter Gary Young really haven’t come up with anything else to sustain our interest. There’s some cursory attention to the increasing suspicion about Harry’s innocence of an investigating police inspector (Emily Mortimer) even as she’s developing some sympathy for him, but almost nothing comes from this limited plot digression. Matters aren’t helped by a clumsily appliquéd ending that supplies some hastily assembled attitude about official incompetence and moral ambiguity.
Caine once noted with cheerful cynicism that an actor gets paid the same for a bad movie as a good one. And he’s often seemed to be operating as if he believed this. There have been pieces of conflicting evidence, such as last year’s inconsequential Is Someone There?, where he showed what he could come up with given even a small opportunity. But even Caine’s quiet authority and deceptively subtle naturalism can’t redeem Harry Brown.
Watch the trailer for Harry Brown
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