Two of my least favorite movies of the past few years are The Brave One and Gran Torino. Seeing how Harry Brown is essentially the exact same plot of The Brave One but with the “beloved old actor playing a hardass” aspect of Gran Torino plugged in for the main character, one would think that I fucking hated Harry Brown. Ah, but there’s where you’re wrong, hypothetical-reader-who-apparently-didn’t-understand-what-I-was-setting-you-up-for-with-those-first-couple-sentences. On the contrary, I actually kinda liked Harry Brown.
In case you forgot the plot of The Brave One, let the Nerd give you the low-down on Harry Brown. Michael Caine plays the titular character, an old pensioner and former Marine who loses his wife to cancer early in the film. He lives in a shitty London ghetto where the gangs rule the streets, harassing anyone they feel like – typical pointless movie bullies. When Harry’s only friend Len is killed by some kids and the cops, led by Emily Mortimer’s character, can do fucking nowt about it, Harry starts murdering motherfuckers. Can Emily Mortimer stop him before it’s too late? More importantly, seeing how he’s doing what she can’t, does she really want to stop him?
So yeah, basically The Brave One except with Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer subbing in for Jodie Foster and Terence Howard. Thing is, where that movie was tiresome and boring Harry Brown brings some grit and (to a degree, anyway) subtlety to the proceedings. The shit that happens before Harry goes Charlie Bronson on all the motherfuckers is arguably the best part of the film, the portion where director Daniel Barber really flaunts his gifst for visual storytelling and brilliant soundscaping, as we watch Harry’s lonely and fearful routine in his sad old flat. Of course, these scenes wouldn’t work if you didn’t have a fucking titan like Caine carrying them. Few actors have fared better over the decades than Caine. While most of his generation of leading men got sadly “bigger” in their respective styles (think Pacino, De Niro, O’Toole, Nicholson) over the years, Caine has always had a light touch, which serves a character like Harry, a character whose shift from sad old man to killing machine takes some major chops to keep your eyes from rolling.
But don’t think that the Nerd is saying that the movie just shuts down and goes on autopilot once the crime shit starts happening, dear reader, because there’s some pretty inspired mayhem in Harry Brown. The criminals aren’t very fleshed out in the film, but the ones we do meet stick in the mind. There’s a great sequence of interview scenes with Mortimer and the suspects in Len’s murder where some fantastically nasty cursifying goes down (why do the English always kick our asses in cussing? Is it the power of the word “cunt” or is there something else going on there that never ceases to impress me?). Then there’s a fucking show-stopping scene where Harry is trying to buy a gun off some thugs in their grow-room that just blew me the fuck away, where whoever played the nodding off junkie earned the title of scuzziest-looking-piece-of-shit-bad-guy-of-the-century. The opening phone camera video sequence is fucking horrifying and absolutely thrilling (though what is up with UK films and CGI blood? That trend has to stop no matter how little funding your films get – the stuff looks fucking insanely fake every time it sprays), and the finale’s even pretty good in spite of its predictability, Barber managing to ratchet the tension expertly
And that’s really the key to the film: It’s predictable, old-hat shit but s0 well-done on a performance and directing level that I didn’t really care so much. The difference is in the details, in the care and love that goes into the little things that most directors would just ignore to get on with their paint-by-numbers story. On that level, Daniel Barber’s version of Death Wish III is a mild success.