Dirtier than Clint Eastwood, with a death wish that even Charles Bronson might find a little excessive, Michael Caine is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
Determined to bring some law and order to his South London estate, with its gun-toting gangs and drug-dealing addicts, his vigilante pensioner digs out an old army pistol and sets about washing the scum off the streets.
Director Daniel Barber would have us believe that Harry Brown is an urban Western, like Unforgiven with an ASBO. Don’t be fooled, however. Ultimately, this is a revenge fantasy plain and simple, with a conservative streak that’ll appeal to readers of certain daily tabloids.
At least the first half sees Barber striving for something more believable, less sensational; using long takes leeched of colour, he avoids glamourising the grime.
Still, the ace in the (sink)hole is Caine, unwavering in his commitment as the grieving widower pushed over the edge by his best friend’s slaying. Indeed, there’s a touch of Jack Carter’s hatchet-faced resolve to his geriatric avenger as he lays waste to every mugger, peddler and hoodie who crosses his path.
But by painting Harry’s quarry in broad brushstrokes, Barber – the Oscar-nominated director of 2007 short The Tonto Woman – tips his hand. From Sean Harris’ psychotic crackhead and Ben Drew’s swaggering thug downwards, Caine’s nemeses are all vicious, irredeemable delinquents, unworthy of even a licker of compassion.
In short, this isn’t a film with much time for the ethics of revenge, the ineffectiveness of Emily Mortimer’s well-meaning copper only providing further justification for Harry’s one-man mission.
Some might say that Caine’s presence is justification enough; after all, there can only be so many more times we’ll see the veteran star packing a firearm. It’s just a shame that, for all his screen-filling authority, his character ends up a little too trigger-happy for comfort.
The hero might be Brown, but Harry is black and white in its treatment of inner-city blight. When all the bullets are spent you’re left with the dubious aftertaste of exploitation, but Sir Michael’s charisma keeps you watching.