Let me make this perfectly clear: Harry Brown is not for the faint of heart. Although the film’s British origins ensure that the body count is lower than what you’d see in an American production, the violence is graphic and deeply disturbing. This is most certainly not a movie to take the kids to.
However, for those who can handle it, Harry Brown may be the most deliciously un-PC vigilante thriller…ever. The story follows the titular Brown (Caine in one of his finest performances) as he blasts his way through a swath of thugs, drug dealers, and other lowlifes on a bloody trail of vengeance, seeking retribution for the senseless murder of his elderly friend.
We’ve seen this sort of thing before, but it is usually accompanied by moral handwringing and a perfunctory monologue that includes the phrases “The world is not black and white,” “You can’t take the law into your own hands,” etc. etc. Typically, the protagonist must die or at least repent, because, well, it would be irresponsible to just let a character get away with it. Wouldn’t it? The popular mid-1990’s Michael Douglas vehicle Falling Down contained all of those elements. Moviegoers could get that visceral kick of watching scumbags get blown away, secure in the knowledge that the “hero” was mentally unbalanced.
Harry Brown, however, flies in the face of such notions. The criminals are little more than feral animals who deserve their fate. Brown himself, a widowed ex-marine, is quite sane and never doubts the rightness of his actions. And, while I don’t want to give anything away, I must say that the movie’s conclusion is the most pleasingly subversive thing I’ve seen this century.
The axiom “You will know your friends by the character of their enemies” has rarely been truer than in the case of this film. Despite the fact that Caine grew up in the very same low-class area in which this movie was filmed, and despite the fact that he himself was in street gangs as a youth, he has been roundly criticized by the British press for participating in a film that “exploits” the poor and uneducated. In a discussion with The Onion’s AV Club, he addressed this criticism:
“That was exactly the reaction. Because one of the things is that if you’re a Socialist newspaper, well, the Socialists have been in power for 12 years, and these are the very poorest people in England, and this is what’s happened to them. So (the press has) got to say it’s a load of crap.”
God love ya, Mike.
Robert Dean Lurie is the author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church.