Maybe you were expecting a review of The A-Team. It’s reasonable, on account of that film having been made by Joe Carnahan — who, not incidentally, once left this reviewer a huffy voicemail, demanding, “Man up!”
Well, just because The A-Team didn’t screen in time for our deadline doesn’t mean all hope is lost for wallowing in nostalgia and hidebound macho posturing. It is with Carnahan’s injunction especially in mind that I have forgone Waking Sleeping Beauty, the documentary about cartoon Hollywood musicals — indeed, that might seem too much like manning down — and turned my attention instead to Michael Caine’s new geezer-vigilante flick, Harry Brown.
With a movie like this, formula itself is posited as a threatened pillar of the social order. To paraphrase a more famous vigilante named Harry, you’ve gotta ask yourself three questions. When does it get ridiculous? How ridiculous does it get? How satisfying is it in spite of itself? For the record: Not for a while; quite; not very, but better than your bleeding heart wants to admit. The rest is atmosphere, in which director Daniel Barber luxuriates quite adeptly, and star charisma, for which Michael Caine was invented.
Harry wakes at 6:30 a.m. to the clock-radio news of a brutal and senseless nearby homicide (we glimpsed it just prior to the opening credits); flips over in his lonely, too-big bed; scans photos of absent loved ones; takes an inhaler drag to stay the emphysema; and tucks himself with toast and coffee into the usual kitchen corner of his dreary English sink-estate life.
En route then to visit his dying wife in the hospital, Harry hesitates at the obvious shortcut of a pedestrian-highway underpass. Cowed, he takes the long way. Later he’ll push a few chess pieces around at the pub with his oldest pal (David Bradley), while two blasted young scuzzers carry off a drug deal right in front them. And finally, before bedtime, he’ll have one last peek out the window at that ominous underpass. Yes, it all comes back to the foul, gaping mouth of that tunnel, from which thugs now seem to spill out like meth-wrecked teeth.
So that’s the long and the short of Harry Brown’s day. Then the wife succumbs, the scuzzer thugs off his oldest pal, Harry goes gun shopping and payback ensues. All of which is happily revealed by the movie’s official trailer — except the part about Harry’s wife, that is, because the movie itself doesn’t much bother to reveal her either. Apparently, in screenwriter Gary Young’s estimation, it only needed her in order to comply with the formula mandate of our geezer vigilante being an ailing war-veteran widower (see also Death Wish, Gran Torino, etc.). The best thing Harry can say about his marriage is that it superseded his stint in the Royal Marines. But it’s only the death of his old pal — his mate, as it were — that gets him really crying.
After that, though, he does a lot of manning up. Is it any wonder? The only other woman in Harry’s life, albeit also in a vacant sort of way, is a detective on his tail. And how nobly the ever-charming Emily Mortimer tries to mitigate the lack of characterization with which she’s been saddled here. For her efforts, she gets to wear some nice suits and to seem generally more competent than her fellow officers, who eventually ignite a catastrophic riot in Harry’s housing complex.
But the movie belongs to Caine, who grew up near where Harry Brown was filmed and did military service of his own during the Korean War. Happily, the character-star correspondences end there, as Caine himself has not since been provoked to murderous fascist individualism. Of course, Harry might say that all he wants is just to be able to stroll through that underpass without fear. Ridding the area of repellent degenerates — who, as one broadcaster reports in the film’s last spoken words, have “blighted the lives of the silent majority” — is just a means to an end.
Well, OK. If you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team. You might need them to protect you from this guy.