By Marty Mulrooney
I knew from the trailers for Harry Brown that it could end up being amazing, a British Gran Torino, Michael Caine’s swansong, a sharp commentary on British society and gang culture. I also knew that it could potentially be a complete disaster… not everything Caine touches turns to gold and this is director Daniel Barber’s first feature film after all.
To be honest, first impressions were not so good. Shaky camerawork shows a gang of thugs in an underpass, darkly lit, showing off guns and doing drugs. I HATE shaky cams and I was nearly ready to zone out, when I suddenly realised this was actually being recorded from the point of view of an unseen member of the gang on his mobile phone.
We then cut to what has to be one of the most shocking opening scenes I have seen in years, as said thug videos a high speed bike ride from behind one of his friends, before doing something completely chilling to a young, terrified mother in a public park. Once we cut to regular celluloid, Harry Brown has arrived. I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. But I now had hope that it could actually turn out to be a decent little flick.
And for the first half, it is. Director Barber plays with the audience really well. After all, we all know what is coming. But getting there is gut wrenching, watching the titular Harry Brown visit his sick, non responsive wife in hospital, waking up at 6.30am into a world of drained colour and cultural decay and staring with despair at a picture of a daughter whose grave he visits every day to place fresh flowers.
This isn’t happy, fun, leave-with-a-smile cinema. This is a brutal, violent and relentless film. From the outset, it is completely in your face. When Harry’s friend Len is killed, we are not surprised as helpless bystanders. He is merely a catalyst for what is to come. The real surprise is provided by the actors portraying the gang members responsible.
I hate films that try to show realistic gang members and instead come across as completely fake. Yet Harry Brown delivers here; every single actor shown in the gang comes across as intimidating, authentic and unpredictable. I felt uncomfortable whenever they were on the screen, which is as it should be.
It is such a shame then that the police always felt slightly unauthentic to me; Emily Mortimer is a good actor, yet I felt she lacked something here as DI Frampton. This may the fault of the script, as it seems the most developed character is of course Mr Brown. Yet the police always felt the most scripted aspect of the film, their dialogue unnatural and slightly wooden.
English rapper Ben Drew is surprisingly good as one of the key figures in the gang, yet it was his musical contribution that impressed me most. Remember that catchy tune from the trailer? This is the guy responsible, and it reappears again here over the end credits. (It is actually called End Credits as well!) I really like this song and felt it matched the mood of the film perfectly.
So when we arrive at the second half, we get down to business. Harry is a former Royal Marine (of course!) and isn’t happy about what happened to his old pal Len. One mistake leads to another, and before you know it we have an OAP Travis Bickle on our hands. There is none of the cool of Get Carter here, with Caine instead wisely showing us early on that Brown cannot run great distances, or pull off special moves like Liam Neeson does in Taken. He is only as good as the weapon in his hand.
This is a pure revenge flick, no doubt about it. Yet by sticking to its guns, it consequently loses a lot of its basis in reality. You really have to go along with what is happening and just accept it, otherwise it will bother you for the rest of the film. To be fair, Caine acts his socks off, and one scene where he buys a gun is a tour de force in tension as far as I am concerned. It is like that iconic moment in True Romance between Hopper and Walken, a diamond in the rough. He may be old, but he is one badass on screen here. I wouldn’t mess with him!
He delivers his lines like a total pro, and although the violence is very graphic, I felt is was justified in context because Harry doesn’t have anything left to live for anymore. He is cleaning up the filth. It is an old genre that has its audience. Yet I felt like the first and second half were two very different experiences. Luckily, I enjoyed them both overall, although my girlfriend liked the first half and found the second half unbelievable and over-violent. (I can see her point.)
Therefore I have to admit, guys will probably get more of a thrill from this film than girls when all is said and done. One scene in particular that I loved (and the girlfriend thought was stupid!) involved a dark underpass, two horrible gang members… and somebody else shifting slowly forward, bound and tethered with electrical cable, terrified. Mr Brown is in the shadows of course, gun ready.
Britain has its bad parts, and my home town especially is known for having some really rough areas. The film plays on this to the extreme (again, it feels fairly realistic in separate instances, but you probably wouldn’t have all of the events shown during Harry Brown happen is such a short space of time, or on as large a scale as shown here).
I can personally forgive this overall as the film is obviously a hyper-reality portrayal of gang culture and the unspoken justice we desire for unspeakable crimes. Some other viewers and critics may be less forgiving on this point, so be warned; this film makes some parts of Britain look like what the Daily Mail seems to think is commonplace across British society. This isn’t real life though, not at all. It is merely the worst parts of it crammed into one main narrative.
So put together, do the two halves make a satisfying whole? Sadly, I thought the film was a bit hit and miss in the end. Some slight humour or relief from the depressive subject matter could have gone a long way towards making the experience more enjoyable overall. As it stands, it feels quite draining and doesn’t leave you feeling that uplifted when leaving the cinema once the credits roll. I guess there are enough horrors in the world without paying to see them! I just felt that it needed more balance.
Also, some final twists and turns were unnecessary and unbelievable. Films such as this one always seem to find it hard to reach a satisfying conclusion. Clint Eastwood ended Gran Torino in a much more original manner than director Daniel Barber does here. I really wish Harry Brown had more of a heart and a message to carry the audience through. Instead we rely on the drab but well shot (occasionally beautiful) visuals and of course Mr Caine himself.
Still, for a revenge flick this is pretty decent, and it does brush upon some pretty hefty issues we have within modern-day society. Some may find it a shame then that is soon dissolves into typical scenes of bloodshed. Still, for Michael Caine alone, this is definitely worth the price of admission. To show so many varying emotions on screen convincingly is a hard task for any actor. He pulls it off, just don’t expect the rest of the film to keep up with him.
7 OUT OF 10
Please feel free to add an additional point if you are male/ a huge Michael Caine fan.