Harry Brown (2009)


The Get Carter meets Death Wish premise sounds irresistible: Michael Caine as a quiet, decent widower so enraged by the casual murder of his elderly drinking buddy on a lawless London estate and the seeming impotence of the police in apprehending the culprits that he gets a gun and settles scores.
But this is a dishonest, tragic failure of enormous potential, that throws away a tense and effective first half in a mess of equivocation, ambiguity and slippery distraction in its second act.

A powerful social statement is seemingly being made, but the writer and director are simply too cowardly to follow the story's trajectory in the direction it is inexorably leading, hoping that a climactic knees-up of large scale violence, explosions and soap opera plot twists will paper over the aching absence of anything resembling the moment of catharsis to which the whole of the film's first half seems to be building. This is so they can stay in the good books of noisy critics who would otherwise label the film 'fascist', a word they do not understand but use with shoot-to-kill efficiency.
Of course they're more than happy to promote the film as a modern Death Wish if that will sell a few extra tickets, but unlike in Michael Winner's film - which had original New York audiences standing and applauding in cinemas - the moral bravery needed to follow through is sadly absent. It simply refuses to declare a point of view, or draw any conclusions, entirely undercutting its pose of righteous indignation. (And if there's no indignation there can only be exploitation: and certainly there's plenty here for the voyeurs of squalor.)
Once it gets underway, and the centrality of Harry's quiet world to the narrative voice subsides, it never again finds the courage to condemn the culture it depicts. On the contrary, the DVD comes complete with a tie-in music video that belongs utterly to the world supposedly under repulsed scrutiny, full of beautiful images of youthful dissipation, and money shots of the film's highlights, devoid even of the flimsiest pretence of context. (The song, interestingly, is the work of the actor-musician playing the lead yob: observe his struttingly confrontational attitude in the DVD's behind the scenes interviews section.)

Caine is magnificent, and his noble effort to see the best in the project, as evidenced by his own interview section on the disc, does him credit. Moments of the film have tremendous power, and when Caine's on screen it projects an honesty that is moving and impressive, unworthy of him though it remains.
The good news is that the con-job failed where it most mattered, and the critics it was most trying to appease denounced it anyway as the very thing it isn't: sincere. One charges it with "ill-informed pessimism", another makes claims of "tabloid propaganda and an irresponsibly negative stereotype (of) the youngest and poorest section of society", alleging that the "question which haunts you after watching Harry Brown" is "why do these filmmakers hate young people so much?" And so on.
Note that films that routinely show psychopathic killers torturing and slaying their innocent victims in obsessive detail do not rouse anything of their ire or unease: only the deaths of murderers can do that.