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Harry Brown (2009, UK)


Director: Daniel Barber Starring: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Ben Drew

(Originally published 13/12/2010 as “Blogvent Day 13”)

I’ve been pleasantly surprised over the last couple of days. The christmas rush has begun in earnest, shoppers seizing the opportunity between blizzard conditions to get the last of the gift buying in. That isn’t the surprising bit. Normally under these conditions stress levels start to run a little bit high. Shoppers, frustrated by having to wait in seemingly endless queues over and over again in different shops and aggravated by being unable to find the exact gift they wanted to buy for that special person usually get a little bit grizzly. Sometimes it all gets a bit too much for them and they snap, just a little, but snap nonetheless. I’ve seen tears, tantrums and borderline violence, all from grown adults who should know better but who have been reduced to infantile rage by the horrors of christmas shopping. Surprisingly, I’ve yet to see even the slightest sign of this happening in any of my customers (although I’ve probably just cursed it and tomorrow I’ll be in for a treat). Thus far, their calm and tolerance is to be admired.

Not so for Harry Brown, Michael Caine’s former Royal Marine in the film of the same name. Poor Harry is having trouble dealing with the direction his life is going and when his best/only friend is stabbed to death by the rampaging hoodies that rule the estate where he lives it’s a step too far. Tired of a society where the scum rule and the police don’t care he decides to take matters into his own hands and reclaim the streets. I know what you’re thinking, “Isn’t that just Deathwish?”. You’d be right. Sort of. Usual spoiler warnings apply, but to be honest there aren’t many surprises to be had.

Michael Caine’s pedigree for being a hard man is quite respectable, 1971’s Get Carter probably being the best example from his career. At the ripe old age of 77, it takes a bit of convincing that Harry is the potentially lethal warrior he needs to be to do the job at hand, avenging the murder of the only person he had left in the world, but Caine pulls it off. Far from frail and with a demeanour that suggests the discipline and training of his earlier life he is more than a match for his foes. They are after all little more than common thugs, untrained and undisciplined and certainly so convinced of their own reputation as hard men that they readily underestimate the determined and experienced Harry. A comment on society’s attitude to it’s more senior members? Undoubtedly. The police underestimate him too, leaving him the room to go about his deadly business undetected. Don’t write him off just because he’s old. Age and experience count for a lot.

One by one he picks off the gang responsible, working his way further up the chain until he get’s a crack at the alpha male of the group, the absolutely intolerable Noel played utterly unsympathetically by Ben “Plan B” Drew. Here is where the film runs into a few problems. The gang are irredeemably bad. Rotten to the core with no hope of redemption. The closest it comes to suggesting a reason for their descent to this level of living comes in a snippet of back story about one of the boys being abused when in care. It’s only included as it is essential for a plot device later on rather than as an attempt to explain how people gravitate to this degree of criminality. The housing estate is depicted as some Mad Max style wasteland ruled over by the marauding youth gangs of hoodies and drug dealers. It feels more like the fevered nightmare of a Daily Mail reader than a realistic depiction of the darker end of urban living. Maybe my life has been too sheltered, but I don’t believe places this bad actually exist. It is however pivotal to believe that the streets are a bullet strewn war zone if we are to accept what Harry is about to do. I suppose on this level it works.

The doling out of vengeance is all very satisfying as you might expect. Harry is very matter of fact about what he has to do, somewhere inside regressing to his service days, the decorated professional killer inside overwhelming the quiet, unassuming chess player he has become in his senior years. The gang are totally out of their depth. He starts to take them out. We all cheer. If only the police had murder teams to do this kind of thing the world would be a better place we think. Sporadic violence leaves a trail of bodies, all of them deserving (at least in Harry’s universe) of their untimely demise. They are all irredeemable. The only option is to cleanse the earth of them.

After some shootings and stabbings and the plucky upstart detective suspecting something is up the estate breaks out into riots and we are presented with a twist in the tale that to be honest you see coming from some distance away. We get a sort of mexican stand off and then in the end, the good guy wins. No recriminations, peace and calm restored and everybody gets to go about their business in peace. Job done, happy days. This is where I have serious philisophical problems with the film. For me, the essence of a good revenge film is in the fact that vengeance differs from justice because it’s personal. Justice should be blind and measured but revenge is an emotional response to a personal injustice. The man who sets out for vengeance should dig two graves. The loss of your own humanity or even life is the price of revenge and the message of all the best revenge films. A message that is sadly missing from Harry Brown. Here the suggestion seems to be that we have exhausted every other possibility and so the only option left to us is to take up arms and purge our streets of the evil hoodies that have conquered them. It all seems a bit extreme to me and lacking in humanity.

Don’t get me wrong, I think we all have a duty to stand up to people who would try and impose their lawlessness on people. I think that half the problems we get from anti-social and criminal behaviour could be readily solved by working more strongly as a society to kick against the people who would behave that way. If a couple of scumbags attack someone in the street there should be twenty upstanding people ready to intervene. We should all look after and help each other. Maybe thats part of the message that the film is trying to get across, that it’s the distance we have from each other that allows this kind of stuff to happen, indeed if Harry had anyone else in the world there’s a strong possibility he wouldn’t have embarked on his rampage, but the subtlety of this is lost in the comic book exaggeration that is the setting.

It’s not a bad film, but not a patch on Deathwish.

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