Thursday, May 6, 2010

Don't Mess With Alfred: A Review of Michael Caine in HARRY BROWN


- I'll see pretty much any movie about an old guy who can still kick ass. I don't know why this concept is so appealling, but it's one of those ideas that is somehow hard-wired into most guys' heads, I think. We love the idea of the hard-travelled warrior who's seen better days, but who, when called upon, can still stick whoop ass with the best of 'em. I think there's also just a pent-up desire in the pop-cultural landscape for box-office heroes who are real men, the kind that used to star in movies in the days before every action film had to feature babyfaced teens or twenty-somethings who seemed more suited to being the sidekick than the leading man. We're a long way from the days of McQueen, Eastwood, Newman, and others in that mold. Figures like that were so towering that it's not hard to imagine them as elderly badasses, still able to teach a thing or two to this new wave of young punks. In Eastwood's case, Gran Torino was his "old man kicking ass" film. That was a movie that both played off of the actor's badass persona and also used the themes of age and time to reexamine the violence and brutality that some of his past characters represented. Well, now Harry Brown presents a similar forum for the great Michael Caine. And the result, while not perfect, is still a suitably badass, at times contemplative film that is all about the line between dignity and violence in a cruel and chaotic world.

The England that Harry Brown lives in is not a pretty one. Because Harry's area of South London is grey and faded, a dingy, dank slum that is slowly but surely descending into chaos. The old guard that lives in the area may remember better days, but a new crop of young delinquents and gang members has completely overrun the area - drug trade, prostitition, gang violence, and street crime is rampant. Harry is a man who is set in his ways. He and his friend Leonard play chess at the local pub, have some drinks, and walk home to live out their lives. They are retired and content to keep to themselves. But eventually, things get too bad for them to ignore. The usually-quiet Leonard is fed up with the crime and violence and wants to do something about it. Harry, a former marine, wants to let the police handle things (they've been doing a poor job up to now though, as Leonard points out). But a series of tragedies proves to be the last straw for the proud Harry. He had put his life as a marine into a "locked box," but, finally, he knows that he must open that box and, once more, be the instrument of violent justice he once was.

And that, my friends, is the makings of one badass urban-vigilante flick in the vein of Death Wish and Gran Torino. Of course, this is the British version of that genre, so there's definitely a quieter, more methodical tone to Harry Brown. There's a somewhat slow build to the moment where Harry finally hits the streets, and even then, Caine doesn't suddenly become some sort of 70-year-old superhero. To the movie's credit, Caine is allowed to be a badass while still clearly being an older man who is subject to the limitations of his age. It makes the movie less cartoonish and over the top than it might have been, but it also grounds it in a more realistic and gritty world than other films of this ilk.

If there's anything that has to be said about Harry Brown though, it's that it's a showcase piece for Michael Caine. There are a couple of other pretty-good performances in the film, but at the end of the day, Caine carries the movie and singlehandedly gives it the majority of its gravitas. Caine is definitely at the top of his game here - he mixes quiet dignity with a real sense of anger and purpose. The moments in which he really does go off the rails and kick ass are so great precisely because we understand that such behavior is very much contrary to Harry's usual M.O. And for all you fanboys out there, yes, there is the novelty factor of ALFRED THE BUTLER starring in a movie in which he completely owns all sorts of vile street thugs and criminals. And yes, I realize that Caine is an all-time great actor with many storied roles in his career, but still.

Caine certainly elevates the movie above and beyond what it might have been otherwise. Unfortunately, the movie tends to lose its way in places, thanks to a script that is a bit uneven and lacking focus at times. For example, when we get away from Harry and instead focus on two London cops looking into the crime wave in his area, the movie loses a lot of steam (with the exception of one crazy interrogation scene). The script leaves it up to the actors to make their characters pop, and that means that the various cop characters never really become all that interesting, as they just aren't given much to do beyond look really worried in that typically British manner. Meanwhile, the story starts out as very understated and relatively realistic, but by the movie's last act, it's practically the apocalypse on the streets of South London, and it all becomes a little hard to swallow. What was a much more personal story loses some dramatic heft when it suddenly morphs into a full-on tale of urban warfare.

Also, I think the movie gets a little over-the-top with its villains. Don't get me wrong, there are some incredibly entertaining scenes in which Harry is pitted against some absolutely vile, creepy badguys, but sometimes, it's just too much. Some of these guys are so horrible as to cross the line into campiness, and I don't know if that's really what the movie was going for at the end of the day. There will also be those who question the movie's moral compass. In England, the film has been a bit controversial, as it's seen as something of a right-wing political statement. That part of the film didn't really bother me, although I did think that it got a bit heavy-handed when it looked at some of the politics that kept the police from working their hardest to fight crime in Harry's neighborhood.

As it stands, Harry Brown is a fun movie that is well worth checking out, even if only to see Michael Caine wreak unholy vengeance on a bunch of no-good punks. The script is a bit wonky at times and the movie is overall a bit muddled ... but man, a couple of scenes are filled with such snap, crackle, and pop that this is, ultimately, an easy one to recommend.

My Grade: B+

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