An elderly ex-serviceman and widower (Michael Caine) looks to avenge his best friend's murder by doling out his own form of justice.
Harry Brown (Michael Caine) is old and weary. A retired Marine, a veteran of the Irish troubles, he comes off as a nice fella, a pensioner, living near council flats in South London, who spends his days playing chess in the pub with his best mate Len (David Bradley), another aged pensioner, between visits to his dying wife.
Early on director Daniel Barber sets his camera close in to Harry, as if he’s studying the etchings that line his wrinkled face. Harry looks sad and worn down and there’s guilt there too. And as we quickly learn it’s the guilt not of a good man who’s failed to act, but the guilt of a man who’s done bad and who yearns to be redeemed for his sins.
Against Harry’s stolid existence, Barber sets a universe of brutality. Street drug gangs have turned his neighbourhood into a kind of war-zone. They harass, torment and kill. It’s no co-incidence that Barber makes this stuff look like battle reports from a Third World frontline.
A young mother is shot dead on the estates and soon after Harry’s wife dies. Then Len is brutally murdered by thugs in a killing that makes no sense, even to the murderers. Incensed by what he sees as police indifference, Harry utilises the ferocious tactics of torture, kidnapping and counter terror he learned in Northern Ireland, tracks down Len’s killers and taps into the big gangs that control the street crime.
Harry Brown is a revenge movie with a lot of messy complications. Its an English Death Wish and Dirty Harry, but its mood carries the sick, visceral kick of a nasty modern horror movie. Barber wants us to share in Harry’s uncomprehending revulsion at a modern era with no values and no future. This despair is starkly played out in the scene where Harry goes to buy a gun from some drug dealers. One has the lank hair and bad teeth of a squatter, while his mate has the emaciated yellow pallor of a zombie. Their warehouse dive is dark and lit up by porn that flickers on a ghostly TV screen, while a young girl is quietly OD’ing on a grubby lounge. Harry later finds that these two are cultivating a vast harvest of cannabis. Martin Ruhe’s cinematography casts the whole episode in a wash of black and yellow fear where every shadow hides another set piece of urban decay. Caine is just great in this scene. He plays it like Harry is sinking deeper and deeper into a paranoid nightmare. The more he traps his fear, the more his outrage builds. It’s only afterward, on reflection, that the scene feels a little cheap. Still, there’s a lingering feeling that Harry sees what he wants to"¦ Was the house of horror really as horrible as it seemed, or has Harry tipped over into craziness?
Harry treats the kids on the estate as animals and his violence is remorseless. In Ulster he was fighting men and women with a cause, he reckons. Down on the English estates though its dog-eat-dog, an eye for an eye.
The scenes of Harry’s revenge are staged with the gleeful cunning of a slasher film; all mystery and suspense with Barber’s camera dwelling on the yobs' agony as they dissolve into victims.
But you get the sense that Barber isn’t quite at ease with Harry’s Old Testament solution to England’s urban blight. There’s a subplot about a kindly detective Inspector (Emily Mortimer) who tries to shepherd Harry onto the path of righteousness. She’s the only one who understands that in a world of manipulators, users and exploiters, Harry’s savagery – like those of his victims – is prime real estate for the powerful. It’s a neat, ironic twist, but it doesn’t quite elevate Barber’s riveting, finely made picture. In the end it seems to be about an Old Guy giving some bad kids the biff they deserve. If that sounds nasty and limited, it is.