erik lundegaard

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Harry Brown (2009)

WARNING: MAKE-MY-DAY SPOILERS

Is “Harry Brown” screwing with us?

The movie came to the States last spring, a Brit “Gran Torino,” another “Death Wish” about men near death. Since there were rave reviews, since it garnered a 66% on Rotten Tomatoes, I thought it might be more character study than vigilante film, but it’s not. No one’s a character here. Everyone’s a type. Count them off:

  1. The vigilante
  2. The friend who dies
  3. The ineffectual, sympathetic cop
  4. The ineffectual, grandstanding police captain
  5. Those horrible hoodlums

Screenwriter Gary Young and director Daniel Barber simply move these pieces against various backdrops and let them play out. There’s patience in the pacing, some shots are effective, I liked a few lines, but don’t fool yourself into thinking this is more than a genre film.

Which is why the dialogue at the end comes as a bit of a shock.

It’s in the middle of the grand finale. Because hoodlums rather than single moms or pensioners are now being killed in this particular low-end estate (read: projects), the grandstanding police captain, S.I. Childs (Iain Glen), ignoring the preposterous theory from sympathetic but ineffectual D.I. Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) that the hoodlums are being killed by a pensioner named Harry Brown (Michael Caine), whose best friend, Len (David Bradley) was killed by the same hoodlums a week earlier, decides to storm the estate in grand, militaristic fashion. It sets off a conflagration. The hoodlums, numbering in the single digits for the first three-quarters of the film, swell to dozens, and beat back the cops with Molotov cocktails. Destruction is rampant. The streets are on fire.

Into this chaos arrive Frampton and her ineffectual but unsympathetic partner D.S. Terry Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles). Attacked, left bleeding and injured, Frampton opens her eyes and through the haze sees...could it be?... Harry Brown running towards her. In his 70s (Caine was 76 when the movie was released), with emphysema, and recently self-released from the hospital after a gunshot wound, he somehow carries both cops into the local pub, run by the sympathetic Sid (Liam Cunningham), who, we later find out, is not-so-sympathetic. He’s the uncle of Noel (Ben Drew), one of the main gangbangers, and a nasty piece of work himself. Before the evening is out, he’ll betray Harry and viciously beat him. But he’ll get his.

Before that betrayal, though, Frampton and Harry have a conversation.

Harry is a former, much-decorated Marine, who was once stationed in northern Ireland, and Frampton, despite the chaos surrounding them, pleads in her usual ineffectual way for him to stop taking the law into his own hands:

Frampton: It’s not northern Ireland, Harry.
Harry: No, it’s not. Those people were fighting for something. For a cause. To them out there, this is just entertainment.

He means the gangbangers. But there’s no way the filmmakers didn’t hear the echo: how it could apply, even more so, to us out here, the audience, watching these horrors for fun. In the middle of a genre film, it’s an indictment of the entire genre. It’s the hero of the story telling the audience they’re like the villains of the story.

Wow.

Caine, by the way, is as good as ever. There’s fear in his hooded eyes but also steadiness in his voice and hands. I wouldn’t pay to watch him read the phone book, as the old saying goes (even as phone books have gone), but I’d pay to watch him in a “My Dinner with Andre” type film: Caine, and another man, or woman, shooting the honest shit. Which is to say: I would’ve liked more of the pub conversations between Harry and Len. But they only gave them so much to say. The pieces needed to be moved about.

One camera shot stands out for me. After being informed that Len has been killed by the gangbangers, we cut to a funeral procession of many, many cars. The camera follows the cars for a bit, then allows them to continue on as it alights on Harry and a young priest before an open grave. That funeral procession was for someone else. Len, an old man, just has the one friend and a priest too young to know.

One line of dialogue stands out for me. Harry’s already killed one gangbanger, stabbing him, and now he’s after guns, which are hard to get in England. So he goes to the source, the gangbangers, specifically a house run by the perpetually high Kenny (Joseph Gilgun) and the spooky Stretch (Sean Harris), whose lean body is a cross hatch of scars and tats interrupted by nipple rings. The two take Harry through several hellish rooms, including a greenhouse of, one assumes, pot, and into the back room, where a video plays of Stretch screwing a strung-out girl. That girl is still strung-out on the couch—she seems barely alive—and when Stretch tries to entice Harry with the worst of his culture by offering the girl, Harry tries to entice Stretch with the best of his culture by suggesting they call an ambulance. But there’s no cultural exchange. Stretch gets pissed off by the mere suggestion of a kind act. So when Harry gets the guns he shoots Kenny and then chases Stretch back through the greenhouse, where he lays, with a gut wound, helpless. Earlier, Stretch had Harry in his sites; but he’d also been using his gun as a bong and it misfired, and now Harry has him. Calmly, almost sympathetically, Harry says, “You failed to maintain your weapon, son.”

I love that “son.” So much better than Eastwood’s clenched-teeth “punk.” I love the old-fashion lesson inherent in the line, too. Be ready. Use a thing for what it’s for. Maintain it.

But that’s mostly what I liked about “Harry Brown.” The rest is stupid—and gets stupider in order to maintain the tropes of the vigilante film.

Mortimer is useless. She was cast to be useless. Why else cast Emily Mortimer as a cop? She spends half the movie, mouth agape, unable to argue back against the idiocies of her captain or partner.

The captain is useless. He has a desultory scene just to show how he, and the system, are screwing up. To justify Harry’s actions.

The hoodlums are cackling idiots without a trace of the better angels of our nature. We want them shot. We get our wish. The movie shows us our fears and, one by one, eliminates them.

To do this, Harry almost becomes supernatural. One gangmember, Marky (Jack O’Connell), suddenly finds himself hooded and tied to a chair. How did Harry get him there? Marky then gives up video evidence of Len’s murder. Why doesn’t Harry take it to the police? Instead, Marky, feet and hands bound, but on a short leash (literally), is let loose 10 feet into the graffitied subway where the gangbangers hang out, and where two of the leaders are sloppily making out with young girls. They see Marky but don’t see who’s holding the leash. He’s still in the dark. They pull out their guns. Why doesn’t Harry shoot them first? Why does he toy with them?

To them out there, this is just entertainment.

Yep.

—September 7, 2010

© 2010 Erik Lundegaard