Harry Brown is a common name, like John Smith or Greg Jones. It’s the kind of name that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but in the hands of Michael Caine, who plays the lead character in the revenge thriller “Harry Brown,” the name, the character and the movie become memorable.
“Harry Brown” is a gritty “Gran Torino” with British accents and a dash of “Death Wish.” Caine plays Brown as High Noon’s Gary Cooper, but instead of being set on the wide open plain, the action in this Teabag Western takes place in the urban terrain of the Elephant and Castle section of London.
Caine plays a widowed man who strikes back after a gang of feral yobs kill his best mate and confidant Len (David Bradley). D.I. Alice Frampton, (Emily Mortimer), a persistent but ineffectual detective with the thankless job of policing the council estate, suspects Harry is a part time vigilante but can’t prove it, and even if she could her partner is ambivalent to the pensioner’s gun slinging ways. “As far as I’m concerned, Harry Brown is doing us a favor,” says D.S. Terry Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles).
“Harry Brown” is a lurid picture of a crime ridden society. Its bleak worldview effectively illustrates the flip side of the Swingin’ London Caine came to personify in the 1960s. It’s a dark and menacing world where Len admits, “I’m scared all the time, Harry.” But all the atmosphere in the world wouldn’t be worth a hill of bangers and mash if you didn’t believe that an 80 year old man with an inhaler could effectively turn vigilante, take the law into his own hands and go all Dirty Harry on kids a fraction his age.
In a film ripe with nice performances—Mortimer is marvelous and Jack O’Connell is frightening as a young thug—Michael Caine shines, giving us a well rounded portrait of a man who is a trained killer—he was a marine—with a “certain set of skills” and as a defeated old man who has seen too much death and strife in his life.
He’s at his best when he plays the extremes—the heartbroken pensioner on one hand; the lethal killer who tosses off Tarantino-esque one liners like, “You failed to maintain your weapon, Son,” to a drug dealer whose gun jammed at the wrong moment, on the other—and it is his performance that humanizes the film’s often passionate pontificating on “Broken Britain.”