As a London pensioner who fights gang violence with violence, Caine makes this a "Dirty Harry" revenge flick worth seeing.
In this brutally effective vigilante film, Michael Caine plays a quiet English pensioner who opens a tin of flaming whup-ass on the local gang bangers. "Harry Brown," echoing "Dirty Harry," is suspenseful, pungently photographed and scripted with the subtlety of a 12-gauge shotgun. It offers a title character of surprising depth while stoking our appetite for retribution.
Caine's impeccable performance gives the film unlikely stature. It's impossible to imagine the movie without him. His presence elevates "Harry Brown" from exploitation pulp to an action film with insight and introspection.
Harry is no hero when we meet him. He avoids the pedestrian underpass where murderous drug dealers congregate and peers anxiously through the curtains of his drab flat, watching decent kids being attacked by sneering thugs. Harry asks no more than to stand vigil by his comatose wife's hospital bed and play chess at the pub. A retired Royal Marine who won medals fighting the IRA in Northern Ireland, he has seen (and caused) enough bloodshed to last a lifetime.
But when the violence outside his doorstep comes crashing into his life, Harry's old training kicks in and he realizes that he still has the skills to clean up the human garbage. Harry enters the hellish gang underworld, hunting down and eradicating vermin who victimize the weak. Truly, old soldiers never die. But will the ailing Harry live long enough to complete his mission?
Set amid graffiti-scarred slums, "Harry Brown" presents inner-city London as a concrete jungle where the delinquent nightmare of "A Clockwork Orange" has come true. This a beautifully garish film courtesy of cinematographer Martin Ruhe's powerful neon and shadow compositions. There's a feel of newsreel credibility to scenes of youth gangs rioting against police.
Harry walks a fine line between good and evil. He's heroic for standing against the thugs terrorizing his neighborhood. Yet his brutal, amoral methods parallel those of his enemies. Our identification with Harry hangs on a slender thread that the film shakes about like a pit bull with a rag doll.
First-time director Daniel Barber gets mixed results from his cast. The usually sturdy Emily Mortimer founders as a detective who exists merely to dispense platitudes about violence perpetuating violence. Sean Harris, recently seen in the "Red Riding" trilogy as a vile copper, is chilling as the slum's psychopathic merchant of drugs and guns.
But it's the sublime Caine who carries the film. Now 77, he's undeniably at the top of his game. What other actor of his age -- any age -- has such an emotional range, from pure hatred to the tenderest compassion? Whether he's weeping at a gravesite or coolly leveling an automatic at a craven meth freak, it's a killer performance.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186