Monday, June 14, 2010

Harry Brown

In 1971's stunning revenge thriller Get Carter, Michael Caine coolly smashed, stabbed, and shotgunned his way through a gang of scumbags with a ruthlessness that makes Sylvester Stallone's 2000 remake seem like a feel-good chick flick by comparison.

Get CarterCaine played Jack Carter, a ruthless gangster out for revenge against the mobsters who murdered his brother, Frank, after exploiting Frank's young daughter for a pornographic film. The tagline was, "Get Carter, before Carter gets you." The film arrived the same year as Clint Eastwood's classic Dirty Harry, however Carter was in some ways more controversial at the time due to its frank sexuality and the personal level of the violence. After interrogating one goon about his brother's death, Carter pulls out a switchblade. "I didn't kill him!", the doomed man blubbers. "I know you didn't!", Carter growls, stabbing the man anyway.

Get CarterIn another scene, Carter stands calmly by while a pair of goons push his car off of a bridge, never bothering to tell them that one of their girlfriends is locked in the trunk. (Instead, he just watches the bubbles.)

Get Carter was an intense action drama that pulled no punches and was all the more compelling for the fact that it didn't try to make its protagonist any more noble than he needed to be. Carter was not a nice guy--he's quite a bastard, in fact--he's just not as sleazy as the people he's gunning for. Which makes sense from a storytelling standpoint, since only somebody as shrewd and remorseless as Carter would have a chance against these creeps. The film exploited Caine's subtle ability to convey charm, menace, controlled rage and ironic brutality.

For those not offended by graphic violence, Harry Brown is worth seeing if only because it shows that, even at 76, Caine can still play Jack Carter with a vengeance. I wish the rest of Daniel Barber's film had been as sharp as Caine's performance--there are plausibility gaps big enough to fly a space shuttle through--however after years of seeing Caine relegated to playing solicitous butlers and harmless grandfatherly types, it's a bracing thrill to see him returning to the darker, more dangerous sorts of characters he played earlier in his career. This is Michael Caine's finest work in years. 

Borrowing elements from a grab bag of movies including Death Wish (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), and Gran Torino (2008), this violent actioner about a quiet man turned vigilante opens with a brutal gang initiation in which a teenage boy shoots a random victim--a young mother pushing a stroller--while capturing the murder on cell phone video. In a flash of poetic justice, the boy is wiped out by an unexpected truck while making his getaway.

The shocking scene takes place in a graffiti-marked council estate (i.e., public housing project) where retired Royal Marine Harry Brown (Caine) maintains a tidy, drab little flat. His days are filled with solitaire chess games and the melancholy rituals of domestic life without the spouse who once gave them meaning. Harry's wife, Kath (Liz Daniels) is in a near-vegetative state at a Catholic assisted living facility. Harry's visits with her are the high point of his day, however as he forlornly says to an old pal, Leonard (played by the excellent British character actor David Bradley), "I don't think she knows I'm there anymore."

One afternoon, while Harry and Leonard share a pint in a pub owned by longtime barkeep Syd (Liam Cunningham), Len spies a pair of ratty looking dudes making a furtive drug deal at the bar. "They don't even try to hide it now," Len says disgustedly. "I found a needle in the toilets last week!"

"You'd think Syd would do something," Harry remarks.

"What's he gonna do, call the police? Bollocks!", retorts Len, going on to say that good old Syd, the barkeep, not only knows about the illegal activity, he's getting kickbacks from the dealers.

"Syd? No!", says Harry in disbelief.

"I've seen him at it!," says Len. "That Syd is not who you think he is. And the other one, he's into selling drugs, guns, underage girls, the lot!" 

"Christ, man, why don't you say that a bit louder?", Harry warns, alarmed. 

Harry doesn't want any trouble. Lord knows, it's easy enough to find. The grounds of Harry's complex have become a hangout for drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and young thugs who seem to congregate near the mouth of a nearby pedestrian underpass. The chavs run the block as their own private fiefdom, burglarizing cars and terrorizing anybody foolish enough to stray into their territory. Aside from calling the police, which doesn't seem to do much good anyway, there's not much for fellas like Harry and Len to do except lock themselves in at night and watch the violence unfolding in the streets below, praying God they'll be left alone. 

If Harry hasn't been bothered by gang bangers, that's only because he goes out of his way to avoid them. The nearby underpass would save Harry a lot of walking time--he doesn't own a car--however he never uses the underpass because of the hoodlums who hang out there. One night, the hospital calls. Kath is dying. There's not much time. Finding himself on foot in a rainstorm, Harry considers taking the underpass shortcut, but quickly changes his mind when he sees the neighborhood toughs hovering in the tunnel. He opts to go the long way, and the delay will cost him dearly: by the time he arrives at the hospital, soaking wet, Kath has died and her bed has been remade with fresh linens. Harry's fear of the thugs has deprived him of being with his beloved Kath during her final moments.

As a retiree on a limited income, Harry can't afford an expensive marker for his wife, only a simple white wooden cross next to the marble headstone of their daughter, who died three decades earlier. The only thing left to poor Harry now is a modest pension and his old pal, Len. And that, too, is about to change. 

When Len is murdered--beaten and stabbed to death by local thugs--Harry is outraged to learn that the bayonet Len had been carrying for his own protection may leave the door open for a claim of self-defense on the part of Len's killers; when Harry is mugged at knife-point by a local drug addict, he finally snaps. His old combat reflexes kick in and he reflexively turns the knife on his attacker, driving the blade deep in the man's chest. As the bleeding mugger sinks to the pavement, Harry's expression turns from fearful shock to black rage. 

A switch flips in Harry's brain. He realizes what he must do. A diagnosed emphysema sufferer with no future, no surviving loved ones, and nothing to live for, Harry sets about hunting down Len's killers with brutal ruthlessness. Like a less-insane Son of Sam, Harry calmly shoots a scummy pimp full in the face as the man sits behind the wheel of a parked car doing business with a young male prostitute. Later, when Harry interrogates the male hooker in an abandoned tenement, he's none too gentle about it. When he threatens to blow off the lad's kneecaps, we know he bloody well means it. 

DEATH WISHAs with Michael Winner's Death Wish, which this film closely resembles, there's something compelling in the story of a wronged man who, frustrated by an ineffectual legal system, decides to mete out a little rough justice. Michael Caine does this sort of thing more convincingly than most, however Harry's transformation from anguished, grieving pensioner to one-man death squad seems a little too quick and complete. It's not Caine's fault so much as that of the script, which, about halfway through, shifts from a powerful study of loss into a full-on action thriller that doesn't really work as well as it ought to. There are a couple of eye-rolling moments near the end that I found a particularly frustrating due to the contrived helplessness of the two hero detectives, and an implausible revelation involving a secondary character. The climax, when it comes, is one of those formulaic sequences in which certain characters are seemingly killed, but are only unconscious, coming back to life just in time to shoot other characters before they kill other characters, etc.

Nevertheless, the movie has much to recommend it, not the least of which is Martin Ruhe's cinematography, which imbues even the grimmest locations with a kind of ghastly beauty. And the soundtrack is positively haunting--one of the few recent movie soundtracks I'd actually buy the CD for.

But of course, the real reason to see the movie is Michael Caine, who, as they say, could read the phone book and make it worth listening to. My favorite moment occurs during a violent shootout in which a drug-dealer's gun malfunctions. As Harry calmly approaches with his own weapon, he says, with a hint of black humor, "You've failed to maintain your weapon."




Michael Caine plays a former Royal Marine who metes out his own brand
of shock and awe against the thugs terrorizing his neighborhood in Harry Brown.

Michael Caine unleashes bloody hell on a pack of sleazy London mobsters
in the violent revenge thriller, Get Carter (1971)

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