Sunday, November 7, 2010

Harry Brown: Celebrating Geezer Vigilantism

One of the more curious films available for rent these days is Harry Brown, staring a riveting Michael Caine as an old geezer who gets so fed up with crime in his government subsidized housing flat that he turns himself into a one-man army, hunting down thugs and drug dealers with cold efficiency. The movie fits into this recent trend of the elderly kicking ass type films (see RED) and may simply be the forerunner of many more such as the baby boom generation begins feeling their Cream of Wheat. Nevertheless, Caine creates a fascinating character in this movie, and the film is a real study in perverse revenge fantasy.

Harry Brown's wife, nearing the end of her natural days, lies in a hospital bed across town, and Harry must avoid the underpass filled with hooligans and addicts on his way to visit. That tunnel is a veritable den of iniquity and we're treated with lovely scenes of punks shooting at pregnant women and other antics designed to make our blood boil. Meanwhile, Harry - having to take the long way around to avoid the tunnel - ends up missing his wife's passing. He regrets the moment, but her death is also the precipitating event that allows Harry to get in touch with his military past, as his wife, it seems, was the one civilizing influence in his life.

So when Harry's best friend falls as the next victim of the mayhem-happy hooligans, and the police begin an investigation, you can bet that Harry soon finds himself not only carrying his old military knife, but kicking down the doors of drug dealers, stealing enough hardware to start his own private war, and taking out his share of creeps and hooligans with enough bloody spatter to make this seem like a zombie movie. Perhaps it's the fact that the sleazy druggies and creeps are pretty spaced out - and move at the speed of zombies - that gives the movie its feel of creepy horror. 

One would figure one had entered into some parallel moral universe were it not for Caine's fine performance, which at every step illustrates a man who is being pushed just one more notch than he can take and who inevitably must fall back on his killer instinct not so much for revenge, but just to be able to live his life.

It's a shame, then, that the movie drives us towards the kind of police-versus-punks confrontation that seems straight out of 28 Days and dehumanizes not the scum, so much, but the police themselves as well as the "innocent" victims. Only Harry seems super-human enough to discern the danger and come to save the day.

I suspect I would not even be talking about this movie were it not for Michael Caine's performance. Somehow, Caine has discerned in the character of Harry Brown not a simple answer about vigilantism being the only response to violent crime, but instead, he's created a complicated man who is loosened from his own civilizing influences one step at a time, and who sees violence as a training to be respected, not a drug to to be indulged (his comment as he takes the malfunctioning gun from a drug dealer who's coked up from snorting off the barrel, cleans it, and then shoots him with it - "you should have kept your gun in working order, sir" - is worth the price of admission). This Harry Brown is deserving of respect, even if the movie falls into disarray around him. Unless this Christmas sees an unlikely number of amazing performances, expect to see Michael Caine's name gracing the roster lists come Oscar time.

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