A version of “Death Wish” with an English accent, “Harry Brown” is saved from the status of crass and ugly remake by two things. One is the sophistication of director Daniel Barber, who invests the pulpy material with style and a true feeling of menace. The other is Michael Caine, who draws on his years of experience—and the good will viewers automatically bring in response to him—to give the vengeful vigilante of the title a degree of depth and complexity of which few actors would be capable, making him a flawed but sympathetic figure, one who’s already been compared to Clint Eastwood’s gruff oldster of “Gran Torino.”
Harry Brown is a pensioner living in a decaying, dangerous set of council flats in London’s East End who lost his daughter some years ago and is now regularly visiting his dying wife in hospital. When his best friend and chess partner Leonard (David Bradley) is killed by the gang of local thugs who’ve taken over a nearby walkway for their drug deals and the police—morose inspector Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and her acid-tongued aide Sergeant Hicock (Charlie Creed Miles)—get nothing from their questioning of the young gangsters, Harry, a former Marine, takes matters into his own hands.
Actually, he initially doesn’t intend to do so, having given up violence when he got married. But when he’s accosted going home from the pub one night by a knife-wielding robber, his old training comes into play and he turns the weapon against the druggie. Having killed once, he decides to avenge his friend methodically. In a particularly creepy sequence he secures a gun from a couple of loathsome local dealers (whom he turns on with fatal effect, in the process saving the life of a girl drugged by one of them); and then he uses the gun, as well as his old interrogation skills, to find out what happened the night of Leonard’s death and exact vengeance not only on those immediately responsible but their boss as well.
The final act brings a twist that puts Brown in jeopardy himself, along with Frampton and Hicock, in the midst of a riot stirred up by the cops’ clueless superior (Iain Glen), a martinet who launches an indiscriminate raid on the flats. But though it would be unfair to reveal the specifics of the close, it’s fair to say that there are some corpses lying about, mostly of those who deserve the status.
Clearly this is a standard-issue revenge story in the “Death Wish” mold, comparable not only to that Charles Bronson series but to Clint Eastwood efforts like not only “Torino” but “Unforgiven” too—as well as all the other westerns about older gunmen summoned reluctantly out of self-imposed retirement from their violent past to address some new threat to societal order out of a sense of rectitude. But “Harry Brown” stands apart from such wretched Hollywood revivals of the formula like “Death Sentence,” the hideous Kevin Bacon movie that befouled theatres a couple of years ago. Yes, the loutish youths that Harry targets are conspicuously vile to make their treatment at his hands something we can accept with relative equanimity. But the gritty, realistic milieu created by Barber and cinematographer Martin Ruhe is very different from the garish, over-the-top sort that American action movies dote on; even when the picture opts for the horrendously awful—most notably in the long scene involving the neighborhood gun dealers—it adds a touch of surrealism that makes the result stylish rather than simply gross.
And then there’s Caine. Very few actors working today could make this geriatric vigilante convincing, but he manages to do so—and to make you care about how things turn out for him. He pulls off both sequences of grief and those that involve action. Unfortunately, nobody else in the cast matches him—not even the talented Mortimer, who plays Frampton as such a controlled, pent-up woman that she comes across as nearly comatose.
Still, Caine and Barber are just enough. Thanks to them, a film that might have been a cheap revenge melodrama instead becomes a rather moving tale of an elderly man’s valedictory crusade against the callous brutality of the modern world.