"To do good to mankind is the chivalrous plan,
And is always as nobly requited;
Then battle for freedom wherever you can,
And, if not shot or hanged, you'll get knighted."
"Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn."
---Michael Caine (in another film)---
In all honesty I must confess that even I possess lapses in my education.
(Oh no, Uncle Mikey. We know better. You read crap . . . I mean, stuff that no one else knows has been written.)
Well, I thank you for that, but it's unfortunately true. Up until recently I would've claimed in all confidence that I've seen every Michael Caine film ever made. But now I come before you to announce that I was in error. Yes! In error.
Fortunately (and, I must add, rather unusual for me), opportunities to correct errors come along. In this particular instance I appreciate the assistance of a Well Placed Friend who not only told me about Daniel Barber's 2009 film "Harry Brown", but who also steered me to a means of watching it.
In a word: wowsers!
When I see Michael Caine having to use an inhaler in a film I am then reminded of just how old a warhorse I've become. I can easily recall the young Michael Caine of "Alfie", "Zulu" and the Harry Palmer films, just like I remember a smooth Robert Duvall. But most of all I remember the Road Warrior. The man we called "Max" . . .
Okay, needing to take my meds after writing this. But anyway, in "Harry Brown" we have Caine in the title role. Our boy Harry is an elderly man (and very recent widower) living in a London council estate. For those of you not familiar with such things, a council estate is sometimes euphemistically referred to as "social housing". Here in America such things are called "housing projects". The sort of residence where the government sticks its lower strata of society and then crosses its fingers hoping the lid won't blow off.
In Harry's case the conditions aren't very nice. Not putting too fine a point on it, his estate neighborhood is a few Beethoven movements shy of "A Clockwork Orange". Street gangs rule the area, and crime and drugs are as thick as rain. Up until now Harry's been willing to turn a blind eye to the goings on. This changes, though, when his best friend is murdered by a gang, and Harry finds himself driven to Do Something. Sort of a hard job for an old duffer . . . up to the point we learn that Harry was a decorated senior NCO in the Royal Marines.
As I said: wowsers!
But I want to emphasize right here and now, pumpkins, that "Harry Brown" isn't a standard vigilante revenge flick. Caine does not come out of his grief transformed into an unstoppable killing machine. This isn't "Commando" or "Death Wish". Maybe the best summation I can come up with here is "On Golden Pond" with handguns. Despite the military training of the character, Caine's Harry Brown is an infirm man who not only stumbles, but is capable of making the occasional mistake. In other words, he's playing the story the same way you or I would if we suddenly decided to get a gun and become vigilantes. At the same time, though, Michael Caine will always be Michael Caine. In some of the scenes . . . notably where he's quietly observing the activities of the gang members . . . you can catch in his face traces of Harry Palmer or Jack Carter.
(Speaking of "Get Carter", an interesting experience can be had if, after the credits sequence, you turn the sound down and play Roy Budd's theme to the 1971 film. I thought it worked very well.)
Having seen "Harry Brown" I naturally wanted to know more about its director: Daniel Barber. His name didn't immediately ring a bell, and subsequent research explained the reason why. He's only directed three features, with "Harry Brown" being his second. His work is mostly in television commercials, and I'm going to make a point to try and look for some of them as they've got to be a serious improvement over Flo the Over-Used Progressive Insurance Lady. Barber's style is neither sleek or fancy. After all, we're not dealing with a James Bond film. But he does know where to lead the viewer's eye and keep the focus on the story ("Harry Brown" runs only 103 minutes but seems much shorter due to Barber's economic sense of narrative). Part of the reason for his success with "Harry Brown" could well be Gary Young, his screenwriter. As with Barber, Young's resume is rather sparse. But he has also written the graphic novel "Madam Samurai" and, in spite of what some snobs might think, show me a good comic book writer and I'll show you someone who knows all about scripting and on-screen choreography. As "Madam Samurai" managed to pick up an Eagle Award (no small stunt if you're working in British comics), I'm apparently not alone in my opinion.
I said how "Harry Brown" wasn't sleek, or a James Bond film. This doesn't mean that Barber threw away chances for visually incredible scenes. A major one involves Caine going to buy a gun from some lowlives for whom the word "punk" would be a compliment. After making introductions in a scummy living room, Caine is led further into the domicile, and the audience is suddenly confronted with a literal forest of marijuana plants. At the end of this descent into Hell is a center spread from the latest issue of "Abattoir Monthly": grungy furniture, snuff porno on a wide-screen television and a girl literally dying on a couch in front of Caine. Forget buying a gun . . . Caine could've just invited his targets into the room and it would've been more fatal, and kudos to Barber and his production crew for filming one of the few scenes which made me want to thoroughly wash my hands afterwards.
Caine receives some rather nice help in carrying the film from Emily Mortimer. She plays Detective Inspector Alice Frampton, and on seeing and hearing her I was positive this wasn't my first film with the actor. And yes, I had seen her before (but not much) in films like "The Saint" and "Elizabeth". Plus she had voiced the young Sophie in "Howl's Moving Castle". Here she comes off looking like a cross between Shirley Henderson and Holly Hunter, which might've gone far into explaining my initial feeling of familiarity. Her character is one of those detectives who's much too dedicated for the rest of the police department. She feels a personal dedication towards solving crime in the council estate neighborhood, even if the job is rather like rolling a boulder uphill. This naturally brings her into contact with Caine's Brown, and which results in one of the more epiphanic scenes of the film. While privately interviewing Brown, Inspector Frampton is drawn into a discussion on chess by Brown. Almost immediately a chess metaphor overlies the relationship between the characters. Frampton is desperate to see crime reduced in her beat, but is stymied on how to do it. Brown represents a chess piece that she can put into play. She may feel righteously uncomfortable about the legality of the move, but the temptation to move someone like Brown onto the board must feel so irresistable.
Credit must also be given to Barber in selecting the actors used to portray the members of the street gang. Ben Drew, Jamie Downey, Lee Oakes and Jack O'Connell play their roles to perfection, generating nothing approaching anywhere close to sympathy in the audience. In this it could be said that "Harry Brown" is lopsided. But there are arguments against such a viewpoint. In the first place, as Caine's character explains, even the IRA (who he had fought against) was fighting for a cause. By comparison, the thugs in the street gang have no cause or program other than murder and rape. In the second place, by taking on the role of vigilante, Brown demonstrates that he is sometimes not much better than the people he is hunting. Barber seemingly wanted to avoid making this just another "Death Wish". He doesn't want the audience to automatically cheer and foam at the mouth with Pavlovskian abandon every time a baddie is killed. Rather, the feeling is that he at least wants us to feel a bit uncomfortable (if not guilty) at the steps which Harry feels obligated to take. This is especially illustrated in the scene that occurs after Harry's first kill. Rather than orgiastically glowing over his accomplishment, Barber has Caine rigourously scrubbing the floor clear of blood, as well as himself. No crowing hero, Harry Brown comes away from the justice he has delivered feeling not only guilty, but filthy as well. If Justice is depicted as a set of scales, "Harry Brown" illustates why the scales should be balanced.
I was truly amazed that I never encountered this film before, but on giving it some thought I can understand how I might've missed it. American audiences, after all, would tend to shy away from a movie which takes place in a British housing project. There's also no love or intimacy here. Caine's Brown is a man who has lost all he has ever loved, or even been friends with. Both Barber and Caine make us feel the loneliness of the title character, and that's not something which brings people into movie theaters.
The film even faced some problems in England. A review in the "Times" awarded three stars, but described "Harry Brown" as "morally and politically repugnant". Which actually sort of makes some sense. After all, who wants to be reminded that one's own tax dollar funded government is fundamentally useless at providing for its citizens, and possesses all the spine of a cup of cold cocoa?
(Trust the British to come up with something like "politically repugnant".)
"Harry Brown" did do nice work at the box office. Plus it did garner critical acclaim from many of Those Who Matter. Whereas it might not be included among the giants of cinematic efforts, I found it quite watchable and am personally grateful it did not evade my radar altogether. I rather liked the film.