Thursday, April 14, 2011

Harry Brown

Harry Brown is the kind of movie that’s toughest to write about, the kind that is exactly half of a good movie. Yes for exactly half of it’s runtime Harry Brown is a tense, stylish action film that both draws on the intrinsic pleasure of seeing Michael Caine being bad ass onscreen, without distracting from the powerful performance he gives. If Hanna was a failed attempt to give a B-movie class, then this half of Harry Brown is an exemplary case of giving a B-movie craft.

The other half of the movie is Boondock Saints 3: Old Saints Day.

Imagine Gran Torino with the climax of Death Wish 3. Imagine that The Horseman replaced it’s lead with Arnold Schwarzennegger. Imagine that Rolling Thunder featured it’s hero shirtless and oiled chucking grenades and quipping witty catchphrases.

You get the picture.

The point is that a revenge movie can go one of two ways, gritty and realistic, or over the top and operatic. And it is the fatal flaw of Harry Brown that it never chooses. Here is a movie that would have been immeasurably better had it kept things simple. Instead it boils over with an absurd climax which looks less like a bunch of cops clashing with criminals and more like those snippets of the soldiers trying to put down the rage virus that we got in the montages in 28 Days Later.

But lets take a step back.

Harry Brown starts with Brown, a mild mannered pensioner played by Michael Caine, losing his wife to disease, his best friend to crime and finding out he has terminal emphysema. Adding up all these things and sick of the crime addled project that he lives in Brown decides to devote his final days to the thing that gave real joy and purpose to his life. Killing dangerous mother fuckers. Simple enough right? If only.

First off it’s impossible to overstate the gravitas that Caine brings to these early scenes. Which play more like a Michael Leigh film about an old British man dying alone than it does your average action feature. Caine makes Brown real. And as a result, when Caine kills for the first time, too drunk to even know what he’s doing, years of training and instinct cutting through forty years of disuse in response to a mugging, you buy it. And when you see the power it gives him, the way it makes him feel in control of his own life again, when he goes back out to purposefully hunt you buy that too.

If the movie had just stayed on that level, responding, lashing out at the world Harry Brown could have been a great film. But no it is at this point that the filmmakers decide to TAKE THINGS TO THE NEXT LEVEL. Unfortunately for the filmmakers TAKING THINGS TO THE NEXT LEVEL, involves creating an army of subhumans for Brown to mow down, who make the collective targets of The Death Wish movies look like nuanced, deeply felt characters. The first time this happens, when Brown goes and buys a gun from a couple of Morlocks, I just rolled my eyes and accepted it as a genre trope. But as every scene afterwards began with the bad guys all but eating a babies brains to prove beyond a doubt that they are VERY BAD MEN who Brown MUST KILL. It is lazy writing unworthy of the scenes that went before it. God forbid we get any ambiguity in our vigilante justice movies.

Things go even more off the rails with Brown’s plans getting needlessly intricate and filled with CGI bullet wounds that would hardly be more offputting if Brown’s victim’s bled sparkles. This is exacerbated by the inclusion of a police subplot (featuring a wasted Emily Mortimer) which leads to a big action climax so wrong headed that it boggles the mind.

While Harry Brown offers man ugly looks at poverty, violence, drug addiction and degradation, it is the sight of a good movie evaporating before your eyes that really hurts the most.


le0pard13 said...

Good look at this one, Bryce. Still, it was a distinct pleasure to see Michael Caine in badass mode -- I don't suppose him wearing the black raincoat (à la Jack Carter from 1971's GET CARTER) was by accident, either. The parallels to GRAN TORINO are there, but the British version doesn't come off as well, IMO. It's too bad. But, at least we'll have Michael Caine (hopefully, in Harry Palmer mode) doing voice work for the upcoming CARS 2. Thanks, my friend.

Matt Keeley said...

I still want to see it...

BRENT said...

Good review and right on the money. The poster you have there is totally different to the NZ version. On ours it stated it was 'a British Gran Torino'. It is no coincidince is it that two old war horses like Eastwood and Caine have made these movies.
I agree that the end of Brown was absurd and I must admit to groanong somewhat. Wirth so much to like it was disappointing it went the way it did.
Your poster is mis-leading isn't it? I don't re-call Harry with a shot gun...doesn't it annoy you when they do's straight out false advertising!!

le0pard13 said...

I'm thinking with that 'shotgun' image the studio was attempting another homage to GET CARTER.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Leo: Him and Bruce Campbell both!

@ Matt: It's worth checking out. It's not like it'll make you kill yourself... probably.

@ BRENT: I think Leo nailed this one.