Kids these days. One minute they’re about ye big and the next they’re raping women, killing pensioners, and smoking crack out of the chamber of an old service pistol. These punks need to be taught a lesson, but sadly Charles Bronson is no longer making death wishes come true and Clint Eastwood has blown away all the kids on his lawn. Whoever will conservatives with a hard-on for vigilante justice turn to now in their latest hour of need? The answer is simple: old man Michael Caine. Once the star of slicker-than-thou mod classics like Billion Dollar Brain and Get Carter, Caine is now reduced to headlining formula detritus like Harry Brown, a film that’s about as intellectually and emotionally hardy as a pile of barbecued dog turds.
Caine plays the titular codger, a widower and ex-Marine gone to seed and now living in what looks like the project complex from Candyman. Drug dealers harassed his only living friend, Leonard (David Bradley), and the police, of course, did nothing. The only sympathetic ear he manages to bend is Alice Frampton’s (Emily Mortimer), but despite all of her good intentions, she’s ultimately just a bungling woman. She hasn’t seen the horror of war or ever killed a man (screenwriter Gary Young gives a shout-out to Eastwood’s Unforgiven and has Leonard reverently ask Harry the million-dollar question: “Did you ever kill a man?” Well, duh, Leonard). Then they killed him and the police still did nothing. These kids have no remorse and they’ll keep using innocent women, children, and old people for target practice and recording it on their camera telephones (undoubtedly so that they can put it on the Internet) until somebody stops them. Hanging on in quiet desperation may be the English way but Harry’s not having any of that bollocks. This time, as opposed to all the other times, it’s personal.
There are hints that neophyte director Daniel Barber and screenwriter Gary Young want to take Harry Brown down a road famously traveled by both Eli Roth and the Saw boys but they never quite have the stomach for it. Harry is, after all, just a few more dead bodies away from being a senior-citizen serial killer. He has a need to kill and a sterling moral code that must be abided by: Is this not the stuff of the next torture-porn franchise?
For instance, Harry gives a drug dealer, who has what looks like a Manson-esque notched cross between his eyebrows, a chance to call the ambulance for some poor girl he’s been getting high and screwing before he blows him away. The kid, covered in scars, track marks, tattoos, and dirt refuses and so must die. That kind of no-nonsense line is the kind you might see in a Friday the 13 movie except here it’s not “You screw, you die,” but rather “You prey on the innocent and refuse to repent, you die.” Too bad Caine never breaks out his machete and hockey mask: While Harry does torture one kid before moving in on the rest by shooting out one of his kneecaps out and using him as live bait for his trigger-happy buddies, his murders are for the most part mind-bogglingly righteous and his aim is superhumanly accurate. (Spoiler: Even when he’s drunk and threatened at knifepoint, he’s somehow able to turn the blade on his attacker and in one fell thrust, instantly kill the assailant. Now that’s some serious Chuck Norris shit.)
At the same time, Harry’s world is the apocalypse that far-right-wingers normally need romantics like Cormac McCarthy to dream up. An ineffectual police siege of his tenement leads to a fiery standoff where the cops in full riot gear, truncheons and shields at the ready, are assaulted by a host of bandanna-wearing, Molotov cocktail-throwing insurgents. The bad guys are on their home turf and the good guys are storming the gates of another foreboding slum. Sounds familiar, yeah? The war abroad has escaped from the confines of the news and into what could be but likely isn’t your backyard (when was the last time the target audience for Harry Brown was anywhere remotely near a project complex?) and nobody can stop it but an old man with a gun and a warped sense of ethics. God help us all.