Monday, September 13, 2010

Movie Review: Harry Brown

Here's Justin checking in with a review of Michael Caine doing his best Charles Bronson impression.

DVD Discovery Dirty Harry Brown Michael Caine insists you get off his lawn Justin Senkbile What's the scariest thing in the world? According to freshman director Daniel Barber's Harry Brown, it’s a sad, emphysematous old man. The eponymous vigilante, played by Michael Caine, is scary in the way all revenge picture heroes are: he has a gun, an idea and nothing to lose. Harry shoots and stabs his way past various riffraff while barely blinking an eye. And, although it has plenty of problems, the picture itself is equally brutal.

In a matter of days, quiet, gentle Harry Brown finds himself grappling with the loss of his wife, Kath (Liz Daniels), after a prolonged sickness, and the murder of his best friend and chess partner, Leonard (David Bradley). The murder seems to be linked to the brutal gang violence that's recently been swelling in and around Harry's apartment complex, violence that the police seem either unable or unwilling to take on.

He doesn't talk about it much, but Harry is an ex-Marine with a large collection of medals. And somewhere between his friend's murder and a botched mugging under a bridge, Harry reconnects with those military roots and decides to take matters into his own hands. This is just about the time that detectives Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and Terry Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles) begin investigating Leonard's death.

Although the tag line on the poster (“Every man has a breaking point”) begs for it, Barber avoids the typical dramatic “moment of decision,” and the moment Harry moves from domestic solitude to gun-toting neighborhood watchman is hidden quietly away. Harry himself is unusual as a revenge picture protagonist in that he's neither hellbent on retribution nor obsessed with noble ideas of justice. He seems lost in a vacuum, killing without remorse but without any apparent catharsis and hunting down his prey without a set plan but with complete confidence.

It's a brisk 103 minutes to the bloody finale, and in that time Harry Brown manages to do some strange things. At times, the film seems to be trying to widen its scope, introducing new characters and providing details on minor ones. Then, just a few scenes later, everything narrows down to Harry again. Caine's muted, naturalistic performance seems almost minimalist. Barber unfortunately never completely strikes a balance with these two styles and the result, although it has few dull moments, leaves many loose ends.

The one thing the movie does perfectly (or, at least, viscerally) is depict the slum world of the neighborhood gangs. It's overflowing with random violence, hard drugs and sloppy gunslinging to such a degree that, although not entirely believable, it is disturbing and fully felt.

Harry Brown
is entertaining and affecting enough for your run-of-the-mill vigilante story, leaving several images and impressions that are hard to shake. But it ultimately fails to reconcile its two stylistic extremes and get a handle on itself. It's a bit too over-the-top for one to take it to heart and yet too dark for one to really enjoy the extravagance.

Grade: C

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