Brutality spoils Caine's nuances
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, May 14, 2010
Michael Caine delivers a stunning performance in "Harry Brown," a rancid little revenge fantasy that probably doesn't deserve him.
Caine plays the title character, a retired military man living in a bleak housing project in England, where gangs of teenage hooligans terrorize neighbors, deal drugs in the pubs and turn abandoned flats into pot farms and weapons depots. After a particularly egregious violation, Harry finally goes rogue, buying a gun from a skeevy gang leader and proceeding to dole out vigilante justice worthy of another Harry, albeit without the flinty squint or do-you-feel-lucky growl.
Instead, Caine's gaze is one of quiet desperation, his voice unexpectedly tender and reticent. As someone who literally wrote the book on screen acting, Caine brings all his sense of subtlety and expression to bear on Harry, whose loneliness he makes palpable just by touching his wife's empty pillow. "You should have called an ambulance for the girl," he says gently, before blowing a baddie away.
But Caine's sense of nuance is lost on director Daniel Barber, who suffuses "Harry Brown" with sadistic, hyperbolic brutality, from the skanky lowlifes Harry gets off on offing to the sulfurous tones of green and yellow that dominate the film's palette. Working from a script by Gary Young, Barber labors mightily to create a world of rampant wickedness and failed institutions, so that Harry's actions make sense.
But his staging is so over-the-top -- especially the climactic scene of a fiery riot and ludicrous showdown -- that he winds up engaging in precisely the kind of sordid, senseless violence that his hero deplores. Harry the Packing Pensioner is really just the flip side to 11-year-old Hit Girl in "Kick-Ass": The gimmick here is that it's an old dear -- played by one of the screen's most cherished actors -- engaging in the putrid pulp excess.
At one point Harry contrasts the Irish Republicans he used to shoot with the bestial rabble outside his neighborhood pub, noting that the IRA was at least fighting for an ideal. "To them out there," he says, nodding toward the window, "this is just entertainment." It's a point the filmmakers seem to have taken to heart, for all the wrong reasons.
Contains strong violence and language throughout, drug use and sexual content.