Director Daniel Barber opens Harry Brown with a killing that defines the violent world of its housing project setting immediately. The can be no doubt afterward that no one living in this place is ever safe from the threat of death, not even the killers themselves.
Eponymous retiree Michael Caine laments the state of the houses with his only friend, Len, as he visits his ailing wife and awaits the inevitable. He frequently avoids an underpass that represents the worst of the situation, an overly symbolic tunnel, lighted in the dark. In quick succession, however, Harry loses everything, following a visit from the staid plain clothes office Emily Mortimer. With nothing left in his life, Harry fights back against the terror inflicted by the kids that affect the violence in his home with his tactical knowledge that comes with his years of Marine service.
The movie clings to its Death Wish trappings heavily from this point out, becoming at times infectiously joyous in its returned violence. After all, these scum started it, right? One can only sympathize with Caine’s eye-for-an-eye mission to remove the worst of the local element, as he is never shown as remotely morally ambiguous. Harry is a force of righteous retribution, flawed only by his physical ailments. I found his playing savior to a heroin addict a little trite as it happened after his killing of her dealers, and a little forced to prove that he was a good man. We already know that, and why he acts against those who took from him. Similarly, one of the kids is introduced as having been molested, implying that this might be his reason for falling in with the killers, but no more is ever made of this, save one jarring kill that Caine makes (not against the kid). The fact is brought up and just sort of left open as a casual consideration. It’s an overly simplified, cliché reasoning.
Caine delivers another gripping performance as Harry, turning his grief on and off with the presence and absence of company. He carries Harry’s secrets, his unspoken confessions and witnessed war horrors, just below his surface, boiling over when he decides that enough is enough. A moment shared with a dying gunshot victim plays nicely when spoken by Caine, a sort of unburdening that Harry takes the man through with him. Mortimer plays her role as an exceptionally dour half investigator, half social worker. She comes off a bit martyred with a clumsy line about how she transferred from a cushy job somewhere else to work this area, and she sometimes carries herself with an air of pitying the people of the projects. Most of the cast gets little to show for their efforts, being often broadly sketched as either opportunistic, jaded or both.
The final act of the film falls slightly apart, as Harry grows soft when it would seem most unlikely, and a poorly planned police raid sparks a full on riot in the name of a lip service “zero tolerance” policy. It would be more effective, and more in line with the movie’s themes, for the police to simply leave the projects alone to eat their own alive. The violence in this part is particularly affecting and casual, which works to the movie’s favor. Murder becomes disturbingly simple for the villains, and in turn for the heroes.
I liked Harry Brown, mostly because I liked Harry. I wanted to see him win. His antagonists had no redeeming qualities, his situation was utterly hopeless and he only wanted to make his world safe. You can’t help but appreciate that. It’s an easy situation to set up and an easy one to lose yourself in; it’s the nature of the revenge fantasy. In the end it really says very little about the environment that spawned Harry’s necessity, but manages to immerse the viewer in that world enough to want to see it cleaned. 3 ½ stars