My Netflix Queue is Outrageous 5: Harry Brown
This is one of the reasons I love Netflix. It costs so much to get a movie into wide release in this country, it’s like funding a space shuttle launch. There’s a ton of interesting stuff that slips through the cracks and ends up with either a limited theatrical release or lands straight on DVD/Blu-Ray. Thankfully online streaming services are giving a good home to that previously overlooked category of films, a place where they can either be watched by people who will enjoy them, or complained about by the shrieking masses who don’t understand why streaming every new release film for $8 a month is not a solid business model. Harry Brown is one of these movies: it’s a UK-made revenge thriller put together on a fairly low budget, relying on the strength of its concept and anchored by one headlining actor, in this case Michael Caine. If that’s the sort of thing that interests you, there’s more waiting after the jump!
As previously mentioned, Michael Caine stars here as the eponymous Harry Brown, a retired Marine living in a terrible housing project in south London. At the start of the film, Harry has three things in life that he enjoys. His wife (who is seriously ill and hospitalized from the start), his friend Leonard, and playing chess with his friend Leonard. He shares a neighborhood with violent young gangsters that enjoy meth, guns, rape, and filming crime sprees on their phones. From the beginning this is set up as possibly the most bleak neighborhood imaginable, inhabited primarily by refugees from The Warriors and A Clockwork Orange. The people who live here vacation in the walled-off prison version of Manhattan in Escape from New York, just to “go someplace nice”. So, you see, things are already looking pretty down.
And then, Harry’s wife dies. Shortly thereafter, Harry’s friend Leonard, tired of being constantly victimized, tries to stand up to some gang members and is brutally stabbed to death. The police, represented primarily in this film by Detective Inspector Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) are incredibly ineffective, as I am led to believe is more or less actually the case in England. DI Frampton shows up with her partner to notify Harry of Leonard’s death, and a series of investigative scenes and interviews lets the audience know that there will be no justice here. Harry goes out and gets drunk after Leonard’s funeral, and as he staggers home he’s approached by one of the people we saw questioned in connection with the murder, knife in hand and demanding cash. Whether it’s intentional or just his old military training surfacing, Harry swiftly turns the knife on his attacker, stabbing him dead center in the chest and leaving him pumping blood on the sidewalk.
It’s the first in a long string of revenge killings, and things just get more brutal from here on out. Harry obtains a gun in the hands-down creepiest gun obtaining scene on record, and begins to hunt down everyone responsible for the death of his best friend and any other gangsters that might show up in his path. While watching the film, I likened Harry to an elderly Punisher, but really he’s more like Paul Kersey from Death Wish. This feels like a remake of that film, or a recast sequel made well after the fact, but of a higher quality than one might expect from a modern take on the Charles Bronson oeuvre. Michael Caine turns in a great performance as always, and the people he’s hunting are sufficiently brutal to make the audience feel okay about cheering on the retaliatory bloodshed.
It might have been more challenging to make a film that asks the audience if this kind of thing is okay, but I accept that filmmakers using their main character’s name as a title are not in it for the challenge. The question is posed by DI Frampton as she starts to piece the evidence together, but she’s such a weak character from the outset that nothing she says or does has any real impact. As it is the gang members are only ever seen committing crimes, the kind of super-criminals who only look up from their syringes long enough to shoot a puppy in the face, and Harry is filmed almost entirely in low-angle hero shots from the moment he gets his hands on a gun. The police show up to quell a riot at one point and literally just stand there while molotov cocktails get bounced off their shields, and the whole thing just serves to make vigilante justice look like life’s only real solution. It’s entertaining enough though, and if you’re a fan of 70’s-style revenge flicks this is definitely something worth checking out. Even though this isn’t a film that aspires to be anything more complex than it is, it’s not a bad first film from director Daniel Barber, and I’d be interested to see more.