“So we were talking Dave and me, and I said “You know Dave, the modern Conservative party is a lot like my critically acclaimed movie The Italian Job. It’s an occasionally jingoistic but ultimately lovable caper starring a band of young British men who get millions of pounds from somewhere overseas by being a little bit cheeky about the rules then try and get out of Europe as quickly as possible”
Michael Caine is a God, in large measure because he stops Harry Brown from becoming a British Charles Bronson, Dirty Harry, or Punisher. And he elevates director Daniel Barber’s first time feature from passingly interesting to downright compelling – for all the claims of Dirty Harry style fascism, he makes sure Harry Brown smacks more of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven than a Ken Loach style social commentary. That’s not to say there isn’t any social commentary – there is, be it the finely observed physical decay all around Brown through to the details of Brown and his friends’ lives, but the social breakdown around him is used to evoke an entirely different genre. Screenwriter Gary Young and Barber, aided by Caine’s masterful performance, weave a classic tale of vengeance – the retired gunslinger wanting a retirement of quiet redemption from the horrors of his past, yet given no choice but to take a whole new generations of villains down after they kill his best friend. The slow build is eerie, dark and compelling, as the film makers paint a neighbourhood lost to urban squalour and extreme gang violence, and the violence when it starts is quite shocking in its brutality.
Brown’s unholy vengeance can only end with one outcome and he’s relentless in taking out the extended gang responsible for his friend’s death. It could so easily have been preachy or even all about the violence, but Caine is mesmerising, balancing Brown’s ruthless Royal Marine with a quiet, sorrowful humanity – you empathise with him every regretful step he takes on his quest, doing what he does best, yet wanting none of it. Cooler than Wolverine, more sharply written than Gran Torino, Harry Brown is still not a perfect film. Emily Mortimer’s Met Police Inspector is a wet drip who could have come out of an ITV period drama, yet even there the Met around her are a clean enough fit for the Western stereotype of lawmen more interested in pursuing their own agendas than real justice. Director Barber has put together a real gem, one not to miss under any circumstances, which may need more than one viewing to pick up all the layers of what’s going on. Intelligent, classic cinema like this doesn’t come around often and it was a truly pleasurable surprise.