Once upon a time, in a magical land called “the ‘80s”, it was required by law for Michael Caine to be in every movie made. Or so jested Dennis Miller before he became a pundit. (Caine was in 22 feature films between 1980 and 1989, usually as the lead.) Two Oscars and countless other accolades later, he still manages to maintain his vigor, even as he gets more and more of the “checking out” roles.
And so, Caine—or as The Boy refers to him, “Alfred, from Batman” (hey, I can’t knock it, I thought of Shirley Jones as the mother from “The Partridge Family” for years) plays a widowed pensioner marking time with his shrinking pool of friends till the inevitable comes.
The generically named “Harry Brown” (I think I voted for him once) lives in crappy public housing and walks to the hospital to see his comatose wife, and visits the pub to play chess with his friend, while the city falls down around his ears.
The decay is most noticeable by the thugs that have made their home the pedestrian tunnel by the projects (or whatever it is the Brits call their public housing). Poor old Harry has to walk the long way to see his dying wife. Selfsame thugs delight in torturing Leonard, his chess friend (David Bradley, best known as the repulsive Argus Filch from Harry Potter).
Ah, but Harry? Used to be Special Forces. He doesn’t talk about it much. But Leonard knows and is eager to encourage Harry to strike back against the thugs. Whereas Harry prefers to avoid, to live-and-let-live, not because he’s afraid, of course, but because he knows how awful he can be.
And by awful, I mean murderously kick-ass.
So, yeah, a late British entry into the “Death Wish” genre, a kind of English Gran Torino, though curiously defused of a lot of the clichés, and really kind of brutal about the wages of socialism, however unintentionally. Actually, pretty brutal about London in general. Incompetent cops—including Emily Blunt, recently seen in City Island—invisible care at his wife’s facility, drug dealers galore.
Curiously enough, though, no Muslims. In fact, all the youths in the movie are typically pasty.
Well, I suppose it’s a minor miracle a film like this (where a citizen vigilante is portrayed as hero) made it out of England at all.
The whole thing feels sort of awkward actually. I really don’t like Death Wish, but it knows what it is. Michael Winner (also a Brit!) had his hand in exploitation flicks for years before unleashing Bronson in that movie (their collaboration on The Mechanic and Chato’s Land probably being the highlights of both their careers).
Newcomer director Daniel Barber, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to want to dive into the muck even though, really, vigilante pix almost by definition require it.
There are some very “nice” aspects of it, however. First of all, as noted, Caine is as strong as ever (and actually did serve in Korea). Second of all, Caine’s transition into vigilante hinges on one scene that is beautifully done and, I think, very true to life.
After that the film sort of loses focus, which might be true to life but tends to defuse some of the tenseness. And it sort of does that throughout: Bring us a very sharp scene, then sort of back away timidly.
It may be the cops that are most responsible for this. You might notice that in most vigilante movies, cops are non-existent (or with the bad guys). That’s because the whole point of the vigilante premise requires them to be antagonistic or ineffective.
So we keep cutting back to the hapless Emily Mortimer (who’s only slightly less daft here than she was in her goofy City Island
character) and her even more hapless partner (Charlie Creed-Miles, who played the hapless younger priest in The Fifth Element
), and their struggles with the chief, who is actually not
hapless but actively aggravating and riot-fomenting.
Damning stuff. But not real interesting, at least not for us yanks.
I did like it. The Old Man, too, maybe a bit more. The Boy less so.
Best British movie of the year? I don’t know. Maybe. I suspect it resonates more strongly with Brits. Whatever else you might say about it, it strongly rests on Caine’s acting abilities. Which, when you think about it, is not a bad place to rest things.