I realize it’s only been a couple weeks since my last movie retro-review, but I just watched this one and I wanted to write about it while it’s still fresh in my mind.
The movie is Harry Brown (2009) and it is like Death Wish (1974), however the protagonist doesn’t take overt pleasure from what he feels forced to do. In Death Wish, Charles Bronson’s character, Paul Kersey, kills with a smile. He enjoys killing the lawless who hold New York City in a grip of terror.
In Harry Brown, the title character, played brilliantly by Michael Caine, is scared and fed up with a toothless police department that doesn’t seem all that concerned with dealing with the young criminals, who terrorize the good people of a London housing estate. Brazen drug dealing, harassment, vandalism, and violence hang over this community.
Early in the film we see video taken by two lawless youths out on a lark riding recklessly on a motor scooter in broad daylight. They terrorize a young mother walking her baby through the park by shooting at her with a gun. Intending only to frighten, one of the bullets hits and kills her.
There is some instant retribution meted out to those two creeps, but the tone is set. This housing estate is not safe. Day or night.
Harry Brown is a quiet man. He’s elderly, which also differentiates him from Death Wish’s Paul Kersey. Caine was 76 when this movie was released, but I get the impression that his character is even older. He lost his only child in 1973 (we are not told how) and his wife is very ill and hospitalized, close to death. Harry has one friend, Len (David Bradley). Harry and Len meet each day at a local pub to play chess.
While Harry has somehow escaped the notice of the local hoodlums, Len, who is also elderly, has not. They have marked him for special attention, it seems. Vandalizing the outside of his apartment, pushing dog crap through his mail slot, physically accosting him, and they even sent some burning material through the mail slot causing a fair amount of smoke damage.
Len has had enough. He tells Harry he intends to fight back using a bayonet, which he has taken to carrying with him wherever he goes. “Go to the police,” pleads Harry, but Len has already done that and to no avail.
Days after Harry loses his wife, he also loses his friend. Len was not successful at fending off his harassers. In fact, he was killed with the very weapon with which he had intended to protect himself. Having nothing left to lose, Harry decides to take action.
Harry Brown is a former marine with combat experience and decorations from his involvement in dealing with “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. We learn that he was a good marine and that he had respect for his enemy back then. They fought for something. His current enemy fights for nothing. Their lives are worth almost nothing anyway, so why not lash out? Why not get high? Why not terrorize the neighborhood?
Caine does not play the vigilante with anger. He is angry, but he keeps it down. Harry has determination, but he also has fear. His military training has him familiar with weapons and tactics, however his age works against him. Despite possessing some skills, he’s no Laim Neeson in the Taken series. Harry is a fearful, old man trying to do something to stop those who killed his friend. The most anger he shows is in his reaction to learning that, because Len had a weapon, it could be argued the hoodlums acted in self-defense. So, at most, they would get manslaughter, not murder. If, that is, they could be indicted at all.
The critical reaction to this film was generally good. Some reviews found its social commentary unpleasant and thought it was a ludicrous action-thriller. But it’s not exactly an action-thriller. It is a revenge-thriller in which our hero is as lucky as he is skilled. When watching Death Wish or Taken audiences never doubt the hero will triumph. He might be a little worse for wear, but he’ll win. But, Harry often really seems to be in over his head.
Does Harry Brown triumph?
This film is rated R. The violence does get intense and the F-bombs are dropped often.
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