Because I only know the charming older version of Michael Caine, it’s hard for me to remember that he actually was at one point Michael Caine, Beater of Ass. It’s like Alec Guinness — he’s always going to be Obi Wan Kenobi for most people, but when you watch Bridge on the River Kwai or Kind Hearts and Cornonets, you realize just how fucking amazing of an actor he actually was. The most I’d seen Michael Caine kill up to this point was a shark and a gay playwright Superman. And I forgot how dangerous an old man can be. Daniel Barber’s Harry Brown is the oldest of action flicks — the vigilante/vengeance flick. The stuff that sends roidmonkeys from the WWE straight to DVD. It’s such a simple premise: Someone you care about is beaten badly or killed, so you track down the criminals that perpetrated the crime and perpetrate a little whoopass of your own. What makes Harry Brown so effective and so powerful is its lack of frills. It’s a gritty, ugly, almost documentary-feeling film. There aren’t huge stunt sequences or flashy one-liners. There’s no Harry Brown signal, no footage of low-income citizens giving their opinions into a news camera, no little kids dressed up in a Michael Caine mask playing in a playground. There’s just one man, upset that his friend was murdered, taking out the trash. And goddamn is it fun to watch.
The opening was actually horrifying entirely in its own way. It’s shot with a handheld POV from the motorbike of two teen hoodlums. They’re tear-assing across a city park, laughing and firing a gun in the air. They swerve past a young mother, who’s pushing her baby in a stroller, doing donuts around her as she screams in terror. You think, “what a bunch of dicks.” Then they shoot at her. They actually shoot her dead, for no apparent reason. They take off on their bike, into the path of an oncoming truck. The camera topples to the ground, showing the two punks laying in a lake of carnage, torn up. It’s a sign of things to come and that Daniel Barber is not fucking around. This snippet has nothing to do with the rest of the film; it’s not Harry’s granddaughter or his friend’s niece. It’s just a more effective epigraph than quoting Longfellow’s “Teenagers scare the living shit out of me/ They could care less as long as someone’ll bleed.” It just demonstrates the absolutely Lord of the Flies mentality of these little hoodlums, running around popping caps for the fuck of it and committing savagery in the name of boredom.
Harry Brown (Michael Caine) lives alone and lonely. He spends his days meeting his friend Leonard (David Bradley — Filch from the Harry Potter movies) for a pint in the local pub and toddering off to see his comatose wife dying in a hospital bed. It takes him longer to get there since the highway underpass is clogged with the detritus of the schoolyard. While playing chess over lager, Leonard nods his head at a drug deal happening right in front of them with disgust. He complains of being terrorized by the little shits and wanting to fight back, showing his old buddy the bayonet he started carrying around. Harry wants no part of it. One rainy night, he rushes to the hospital, again having to take the long way because of the riffraff, only to find he’s too late and his wife has passed. But this doesn’t cause him to burst into the Old Batman. He leaves flowers on the grave of his wife and his young daughter, who’s dead too, but not killed by a drug overdose or anything that would cause him to suddenly don the death dealer gloves. His friend Leonard decides to take matters into his own hands after a prank but is found horribly butchered in the underpass by his own bayonet. And even then, mortified and mourning, Harry still doesn’t fight back.
That’s what makes the film so effective. It’s not some shirt tearing, shot from above in the rain moment, where Harry screams into the heavens the name of his lost friends and loved ones. It happens so fucking naturally. We know who did it. The detectives, Emily Mortimer (in a very dry role) and Charlie Creed-Miles, bring in the killers one by one, and they’re all lawyered up, shouting obscenities and taunts or being so drug addled they can barely mutter anything but “no comment.” And these kids, oh, these absolute little fucking miscreants, you just pray and long for their comeuppance. I’ve been watching an overabundance of British entertainment dealing with the drug and drink addled tough-ass life of Brit thug teens, and these kids make the rest of them look like Newsies. Practically every scene we see of these mooks is them turning like a pack of animals on someone and circle-stomping them to a quivering mass in a pool of blood. Even Gandhi would have want them ground into hamburgers.
Gary Young’s script comes around to that so smoothly — albeit a little casual. Young’s only other notable script (well, I haven’t seen Shooters, so pipe up pond-acrossers) is The Tournament, which didn’t really do it for TK. Coming home drunk from the pub, schnockered in mourning for his lost friend, Harry Brown gets mugged by one of the hoodlums, which causes his military training to kick in, and with one quick twist of his wrist and a spurt of arterial blood, we’re down one less bad guy. Harry’s horrified at what he’s done, getting home and seeing himself in his hallway light, covered in blood. He wraps up the clothing and throws it deep in a trash bin, and goes to a drunken passed out sleep. Again, it’s not Death Wish, it’s not Rambo — it’s a man who decides he’s had enough. And the cops aren’t cheering his vigilantism. Emily Mortimer wants him busted, and at one point, is ready to take him into custody.
Michael Caine is simply awesome as Harry Brown. You never once doubt his character. There’s more depth in his payback and melancholy than in the collected tears of the entire cast of The Expendables. He’s more like a Shakespearean tragedian, and he pays for every knife thrust. He never loses his humanity, he never becomes cartoonish, even with the ramped-up violence. Heads are juicy and filled with fluid, and when a bullet enters it, here comes the rain again. Emily Mortimer is a bit out of place, but it’s not a great part. The kids are fucking amazing. As I said, you just want to see them all suffer horribly, which is the sign of a great villain.
I am leaving so much out because I don’t want to ruin a frame. It’s shot with that same dark grungy look they try to Reznor on everything these days, which actually gives it a more horrible feeling. While “The Wire” humanized drug dealers, Harry Brown does everything in its power to turn them into ghoulish zombies eating your brains because there’s nothing on Channel 4. Unlike Gran Torino, which will draw comparisons simply because of the angry grampa similarities, the messages of the film don’t ever feel like those of an afterschool special. Barber and Young don’t want us to all get along, to understand our cultural differences. These street gangs are like cockroaches, and they need to be stomped on and poisoned out of our livelihoods. If you doubt the veracity of the storyline, know this — the murder was videotaped with a cellphone just for shits and giggles. You tell me this generation isn’t one step away from a serial killer who Twitters his murders, Foursquares the site of the killings, and then puts the footage on YouTube. Only by then, none of that will be cool anymore.