REVIEW: Harry Brown [2009]

“You should of called an ambulance for the girl”

When you have nothing to lose, how far are you willing to go for a vengeance ignored by the police? Harry Brown delves into this vigilantism, depicting a pensioner in England and his inability to hide in the shadows mourning anymore. After having his wife, daughter, and best friend all murdered in cold-blood by the young hoodlums ruling the streets and turning the neighborhood into a warzone of guns and drugs, Brown falls into a deep depression of hopelessness, knowing that the authorities have done nothing to stop the bloodshed. He is an ex-Marine, but that life was a generation ago; he locked the past away when he decided to be a husband and father at home, choosing love over death. Currently alone and updated by a Detective Lieutenant on how his buddy’s murder would qualify as manslaughter due to the weapon being owned by the victim, Brown has only the bottle to disappear into. There is no one to play chess with, no one to visit his family’s graves, but even drunk and walking home in the night, those military reflexes remain. It only takes one easy kill to turn an elderly retiree into the town’s last hope for justice.

Michael Caine is a self-proclaimed ‘working actor’. He’s the first to admit that some of his career choices are dubious at best, jobs to pay the bills despite no redeeming qualities or artistic resonance. So, as a result, it is always a pleasure to watch this screen legend in a role with some meat, proving to the world he still has what it takes to get the job done. His portrayal of Harry Brown is phenomenal. It’s complete with distraught emotions as his life shatters around him and the steely cool glare of a man at the end of his rope, recalling the mental fortitude necessary to succeed in war. And this is war—it’s a battle between the hoods on the street taking control and invoking fear of all ages. They are the sons of the past generation of criminals, being taught by the best and having new technology and lax police to make the job even easier. No one wants to stay on the fringes while the cops do their duty to clean things up more than Brown. Sometimes there just isn’t a choice, though. Sometimes one breaks beyond return, realizing that no matter what horrors he is about to partake in, they are necessary to keep home safe.

The film gets it all right too, from the authenticity of seedy gang hangouts, the drug-addled youths without respect for authority, to the fearlessness of the titular character on his descent into hell. Hanging out in a subway tunnel leading to the pedestrian walkways at the center of rundown apartment complexes—the sidewalks where Brown’s loved ones were all murdered—these kids are a rough and tumble bunch. Some, like gang leader Noel Winters, played by Ben Drew, are stoically homicidal while others such as the abused Marky are fidgety and afraid of every angle. Jack O’Connell is great as this frightened boy, too far gone to assimilate back into society and do the right thing by turning his comrades in, but also unable to get his head straight to be a killer like the others. Instead he stays a member for protection, playing the wallflower with his cell phone, recording every criminal act because these boys believe they are untouchable. It’s the kind of hubris allowing you to document your crimes that eventually burns you.

Along with all the grime depicted in hideouts—Sean Harris as Stretch, a heroin addicted gun dealer and pot grower is as bottom of the barrel as you can get, he is trash incarnate in a fantastic turn—comes the ineptitude of the police. Only D.I. Alice Frampton, the solid Emily Mortimer, is putting the pieces together, connecting a recent upsurge in murders to the solitude of Caine’s Brown. But why would her partner or superior believe that a gray-haired old man suffering from emphysema could possibly be capable of taking out six killers in three days? No, they’d rather go out in riot gear and make a statement, a power play they are unable to back up due to the lack of evidence or warrants. There is a massive assault scene with legions of youths, bandana-covered faces and Molotov cocktail filled hands, attacking the stationary cops holding shields. The streets are ablaze, destruction laid in the wake of these kids with no regard for human decency or life. And what do the police do? What can they do? They stand behind plastic and take every blow. It isn’t China circa 1989, you can’t just open fire and suppress a riot you yourself began.

And it’s scenes like this that become truly memorable in Harry Brown. Caine is a force at the center of it all and Gary Young’s screenplay is taut and intelligent, showing us the two worlds colliding for Brown, an overlap he no longer can ignore. But you have to credit first-time feature film director Daniel Barber for putting it all together. Not only does he get top-notch performances from his entire cast, his work with cinematographer Martin Ruhe is viscerally gorgeous in its scorched setting. There are countless frames with broken glass or obstructed objects where Caine’s face is carefully placed in the empty space. The camerawork is very deliberate and mesmerizing in its composition, especially those instances shown through the shaky, handheld screen of a cell phone. Barber throws you directly into the action with the first frame. We watch a young boy forced to get high and then have a gun placed in his hand. The following becomes a one-take shot of him on a bike, circling and screaming, waving his gun and shooting an unsuspecting woman with a stroller walking by before falling in front of an oncoming truck, throwing the camera around until it finally rests in the street. It’s a brilliant opening that gets the blood pumping, preparing you for the inevitable brutality soon to be depicted—there is a lot of blood to be spilled. Sometimes only a man without the constraint of rules and regulations can subdue the malice occurring around us.

Harry Brown 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

[1] Michael Caine as the title character in HARRY BROWN. Photo Credit: Dean Rogers / Samuel Goldwyn Films.
[2] Emily Mortimer as D.I. Frampton in HARRY BROWN. Photo Credit: Dean Rogers / Samuel Goldwyn Films.


2 Thoughts to “REVIEW: Harry Brown [2009]”

  1. ultimateserge

    Really nice blog.

    I found Harry Brown to be as poignant as you said, but it just seemed to familiar to other vigilante works I’ve seen so far.

    Also, the Taxi Driver-like ending really seemed doubtful.

    Besides these small issues, great film.

  2. thanks for reading.

    as far as the ending, i agree with convenience and the fact he doesn’t go to jail for his crimes, but i think it is very different from Taxi Driver due to the reasons behind each lead character’s motivations. Harry Brown is trying to help, clean up the streets with his specific skill set, payback criminals who killed his loved ones. Travis Bickle on the other hand is a crazy person thinking he can rid society of its scum. his actions may be premeditated, but he stumbles into his kills, afraid to do the one assassin he planned on committing. the fact Bickle gets away with it is purely coincidental due to the media’s need to sensationalize and create a new hero. his victory is directly resultant from the same societal problems he thought he’d get rid of; Harry Brown’s freedom is earned by doing the right thing, albeit illegal and morally wrong.

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