The first few minutes of Daniel Barber's Harry Brown features scenes of distressing chaos — a car wreck, a group of fearsome thugs hanging around a tunnel, a random act of violence — quickly undercut by moments of morose calm as the film's title character, played by Michael Caine, starts his daily routine. Harry awakes, gets himself together, walks through the town, bypasses the tunnel where the menacing troublemakers hang, visits his dying wife at the hospital, and downs a pint with his best friend, Leonard.
Shortly after the film begins, Harry's wife dies, so he does what he normally would: he meets up with Leonard at the bar to do the usual gab and guzzle. Moments later, Leonard shows Harry a shank he's been hiding in his coat in order to protect himself from the street toughs. Shortly thereafter, Leonard meets his end.
But almost as soon as the cops bring in Leonard's killers for interrogations, they are let go. Meanwhile, Harry finds himself the sole attendee at his drinking buddy's funeral and, later, staring down another empty glass at the pub. That night, however, Harry's stagger home turns deadly when a drug addict whips a knife on him. It seems to be that the quiet, reserved Harry is an ex-marine with a lot of medals and an innate ability to kick ass? And like that, Harry Brown becomes a revenge film.
Much like Charles Bronson's turn in Death Wish, Harry Brown is Michael Caine's attempt at playing the "I-can't stands-no-more" role of a vigilante. And here, in this violent revenge tale, Caine's portrayal of Harry is heartbreakingly real, helped in part by British thesp's eyes, which communicate a profound sadness. But what's really amazing here is how quickly those same sad eyes transform into an ice cold stare.
Revenge has taken hold of the cinematic world since the collapse of the Twin Towers and the War on Terror. The number of superhero films — most notably, the revenge-oriented Spider-Man and The Dark Knight — have increased tenfold since 9/11. And thanks in part to Abu Ghraib, the Daniel Pearl video, and other celluloid horrors, torture porn flicks like Hostel and Saw have flourished. And whether the theme has been a gleeful venture of visceral carnage — like Kill Bill Volume 1 or Oldboy — or a punishing meditation filled with calm dialogue (Kill Bill Volume 2, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), the theme of bloodlust has never been as popular internationally as it is now.
You can now add Harry Brown to that list. While the film adheres to the standard tropes of the revenge film — the non-violent tough guy who is pushed to the edge, the ruthless thugs who deserve all that they get, and the cops who are always one step behind our protagonist — the difference here is how well this not-so original story is told, most notably in the film's distressing tone. These thugs may be evil, but the world they come from is hopeless; moments of quiet are interrupted by jarring noise and violence; our man character collapses from exhaustion while pursuing one of the criminals. In Harry Brown, everyone — the villans, the hero, and the audience — is pushed to their breaking point.
With Harry Brown, the revenge flick isn't reinvented, but dammit if a good one isn't sweet.