Recently widowed Harry Brown, an elderly ex-Royal Marine, spends his days enjoying a quiet pint with his mate Leonard on the rough estate where they both live. But when local teenagers murder his friend and the police appear powerless to help Harry decides to take the law into his own hands.
Exploitation cinema often takes inspiration from media fuelled moral panics and Harry Brown, the directorial debut of Daniel Barber, is very much of this ilk concerned as it is with the problems of what politicians have cynically dubbed Broken Britain. Before the opening credits roll the viewer is thrust into this violent world of lawless youth and casual violence expertly brought to the screen in all its grim glory by Barber. The dank oppressive cinematography evocatively portrays a mercilessly bleak washed out environment of empty pubs, graffitied no go areas and drug dens; an inner city landscape of dehumanising concrete slabs occupied by adults who silently observe the youthful gang violence from their lofty dwellings before returning to their mundane lives. It’s a place Harry calls home.
A persuasive performance from Michael Caine dominates the movie, giving believability to the idea of an OAP vigilante. The sympathetic ordinary man’s transformation from passive observer to violent activist is captivating, so much so that the supporting characters pale in comparison. The hoodies that populate this world are one-dimensional archetypes to be variously shot, tortured and abused and the police an ineffectual bunch. Emily Mortimer provides some kind of moral centre as the sympathetic DI Frampton and the scenes she shares with Harry hint at a more subtle take on revenge and violence. But for the most part Harry has no lingering moral dilemma about his actions and neither does the film. It’s at it's best when unashamedly pandering to the cathartic wish fulfilment of the powerless taking matters into their own hands and is undeniably tense, never more so then when Harry ventures into a drug dealer's squalid lair to buy guns. It’s a palpably taut scene that best demonstrates the movie’s power, the ability to create a relentless sense of dread and impending violence, amplified by a sparse score that is simultaneously ominous and mournful.
It’s probably best not to take too seriously Harry Brown’s attempts at social commentary, nor the apparent legitimisation of vigilantism. The real problems of so-called anti social behaviour and juvenile criminality are little more than a plot device, a backdrop for an undeniably compelling revenge thriller. A brutal lurid urban western where a man's gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Thank God that man is Michael Caine, whose performance coupled with Daniel Barber’s assured and genuinely artful direction make Harry Brown an entertaining if at times uncomfortably desolate slice of contemporary exploitation cinema.