SXSW FILM 2010
By Don Simpson | April 2, 2010
Director: Daniel Barber
Writer: Gary Young
Starring: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Ben Drew, Charlie Creed-Miles, David Bradley, Jack O’Connell, Liam Cunningham
Harry Brown (Michael Caine), a retired marine (having served in Northern Ireland), resides in a dank concrete south London council estate. His days are comprised of visiting his hospitalized wife – dutifully avoiding the nearby pedestrian underpass by which wayward youth anxiously swarm awaiting any opportunity to prey upon anyone foolish enough to walk their way – and playing chess in the local pub with his best friend Leonard (David Bradley).
His wife soon dies of a terminal disease and Leonard is stabbed to death by the feral Biro-tattooed gangsters (who appear to constitute the estate’s entire under-40 population) who terrorize Harry’s neighborhood. (The latter’s death occurs shortly after Leonard expressed his fear of the youth of today and Harry promptly dissuaded Leonard from taking the law into his own hands.) Harry discovers about Leonard’s death by way of a visit from a pale and frail female police officer, DI Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer). Harry learns that several of the local gang members – including leader Noel (Ben Drew) – have been interviewed about the crime, but there is insufficient evidence to constitute pressing charges. So, the aged Dirty Harry decides to fight a one man vigilante battle against the local hoodlums; his mantra becomes “Kill ‘em all and let God sort them out.”
While walking home late from his local pub, Harry stabs Dean (Lee Oakes) – one of Noel’s gang – to death. Next, Harry visits a local drug and arms dealer (Sean Harris), shoots him and steals his weapons (to add some sympathy to the mix, Harry rescues an OD’d woman along the way). Harry then captures Marky (Jack O’Connell) – another of Noel’s minions – and gets all Bush/Cheney on him. After much torture, Marky reveals some cell-phone footage that proves that Noel was Leonard’s killer. To thank Marky for the undeniable proof, Harry kills him and sets out to pursue Noel.
DI Frampton suspects that Harry is behind the recent rash of killings – she even confronts Harry and tries to persuade him that he is not in Ulster anymore; Harry’s response: “At least over there they were fighting for something; for this lot it’s just entertainment.” Frampton’s super (Iain Glen) has a high-profile no-holds-barred anti-crime initiative in the works; but when his squads raid the council estate, all hell breaks loose. The ineffective police (who seem afraid to use any kind of violence against the estate’s hoodlums) eventually retreat; but Frampton finds herself left behind, trapped in Harry’s local watering hole. Don’t fret Dirty Harry is on his way…
Harry acts as judge, jury and executioner dishing out his own brand of vengeance and justice to the youths that he finds responsible for Leonard’s murder. His violence is not only glorified, but also excused because he is saving the world from its no good drug-dealing “hoodie” thugs. Though his health slows him down on occasion, Harry never waivers due to remorse; he never once pauses to consider whether killing is the best solution. Barber purposefully creates one-dimensional gang members that seem barely even human and are quite easy to hate; while the police are represented as powerless and ineffectual. (The dainty and mousey Emily Mortimer is quite purposefully miscast to personify the weakness of London’s police detectives).
An aged male lead – military veteran, retired, and widowed – residing in not-so-friendly neighborhood that is terrorized by gang members, attempts to have his revenge on the modern world gone awry…sound familiar? That’s because Clint Eastwood’s (the real Dirty Harry) Gran Torino had a similar set-up. However Eastwood showed us that it is possible to teach wayward youth a lesson while reinstating the importance of civility and morality in modern society. The relentless retribution doled out in Barber’s film is a completely different breed than Eastwood’s.
Daniel Barber’s debut feature of violent vengeance does reveal Michael Caine close to his very best; bringing subtlety and humanity to the role of Harry, Caine effectively persuades the audience to root for Harry hoping that the “hoodies” will get what they deserve: death. That said; Harry Brown is an overtly simplistic and alarmist portrayal of “Broken Britain” that is now being cited in right-wing British tabloids as a national rallying call for vigilante-ism. In the U.S., I would refer to this as a libertarian fantasy flick; in the U.K., Harry Brown is fodder for subscribers of the Daily Mail that readers of The Independent or The Guardian will detest.