Through the last two Batman films, Michael Caine has stood in Batman's shadow as his faithful butler and confidant, Alfred. Now, in Harry Brown, Caine steps into the role of the vigilante set out to avenge his friend's death and to clean up his chaotic neighborhood. He may not be a masked avenger, set out to protect Gotham from a laundry list of super villains - but Harry Brown is a citizen who thinks things have gone too far and decides to take matters into his own hands, just as caped crusaders have been doing in film and literature forever.
In Harry Brown, Caine plays the title character who lives in a South London housing development that's been overrun with youth crime. The film opens with a disturbing cell phone video of a gang initiation in which a boy is joyriding on a motorbike and shoots and kills a single mother pushing her two-year-old in a stroller in the park. A young gang has taken over a public underpass and has also taken to bullying Harry's friend, Leonard, by shoving dog feces and burning newspaper through his mail slot. The crime rate is through the roof and it seems the police aren't doing anything to stop it. When Leonard goes to the underpass to defend himself with a military bayonet, he is beaten and killed by the gang.
The film excels in the character development of Harry making it believable that an old man could possibly take on the deranged youth. We learn through a conversation with Leonard that Harry was in the military as a Royal Marine who fought in Northern Ireland. When Leonard asks Harry, "Did you ever kill anyone?" Harry's response is, "You can't ask me that." Though Harry says he buried that part of his life away when he met his wife, his military instincts kick back in at exactly the right moment. Harry is a strategist, as he spends his days playing chess with Leonard, and studying the great matches of Bobby Fisher.
The filmmakers took special pride in the attention to detail in their characters, bringing to life the most disgusting and disturbed individuals. The drug dealers from whom Harry plans to buy a gun play the heroin-addict role perfectly. One of the dealers, Stretch (Sean Harris), is covered in cuts and scars and his whole body twitches and tweaks from the drug.
What's interesting is the use of technology in Harry Brown. In the borderline dystopian society, the youth don't fear the powers that be and have created an authoritarian form of street government, where they take out their aggressions on the community. Their extreme lack of fear of authorities could contribute to why they film their terror-inducing activities, such as that which begins the movie. Either that or they are just plain stupid, because when Harry tortures one of the gang members from the underpass, the gang member admits there is video on his phone of Leonard's murder.
Overall, Harry Brown is a fairly formulaic revenge thriller. There aren't any huge twists to speak of or many surprises waiting in the wings. The violence is graphic and bloody, and at times shockingly realistic, which could either be a good or bad thing depending on your personal preference. The acting is spectacular by Caine, though that's no surprise, as well as by cast mates Emily Mortimer as Detective Inspector Alice Frampton and British rapper Ben Drew as Noel Winters, the leader of the malevolent youth.
What Harry Brown has in common with Batman is that they both seek revenge on crime and carry out their vendettas for justice. Harry doesn't set out to protect the city from evildoers and no one is going to put up a bat signal requesting his assistance. Harry is just an old man who wants to avenge his friend's death and be able to walk peacefully through a nearby underpass. Though their styles of justice are different, I imagine Batman would be proud of Harry for finally fighting back.
Starring Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Ben Drew
Directed by Daniel Barber