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Raising Caine

Harry Brown (2009)

Harry Brown Productions Ltd./
Samuel Goldwyn Films

Michael Caine is “Harry Brown,” the ads for this revenge thriller tell us, and is he ever. Giving a performance that exudes distinguished, barely disguised ferocity, the legend creates another of his memorable characters. He’s the only reason to bother with Daniel Barber’s middling, grim genre effort, a movie so wedded to a realistically subdued take on its age-old premise that it forgets to be any fun.

As the picture opens, Harry — a codger dwelling in a working-class London housing development — suffers two major traumas. First, his wife of many years succumbs to an illness. Then, his best friend and chess-playing companion Leonard (David Bradley) is brutally murdered when he tries to stand up to the gangs of marauding youths that have turned their neighborhood into a breeding ground for criminality. Incensed, at his wit’s end and without a companion in the world, he loads up the gun and sets out into the night, on a path for justice to take care of things in a way the police have not.

As his journey begins, the screenplay by Gary Young follows a stock path. Often emerging from the shadows, Harry confronts the bad guys, snarls and does them in as violently as possible. Officer D.I. Frampton (Emily Mortimer) knows something’s up with Harry, but feels a strange daughterly attachment to him — and so on, and so on.

An effective revenge picture must foster a true rooting interest in the protagonist, the ability to share in the satisfaction of bad guys being blown away. With washed out grays, a sterile government-run setting and scenes of gang violence seen from the distance of Harry’s window, the film remains a curiously muted, remote affair. The one risibly constructed sequence — in which the protagonist pays a visit to deranged, cadaverous druggies — still lacks the immersive payoff it needs.

Mr. Caine’s performance, highlighted by the contrast between the disbelief that lines Harry’s face during the killings and the nature of those violent acts, is well calibrated for a narrative that tries to reclaim a grounded place for a milieu that would typically be played for excess. Yet there is no tangible broader message to be taken from his plight, beyond standard simplistic vigilante constructs. His arc stalls as the screenplay fails to provide a picture of what entrenched, brewing inner emotions have driven Harry down such a dark path.

In fact, Harry’s past largely remains a mystery; and throughout most of the movie, his non-murderous human contact is relegated to the occasional interaction with Frampton. Mr. Caine tells us a lot about the character, but even he can’t provide enough to enhance the drabness of the glum, one-note sojourn on which Harry embarks. Couple that with an apparent aversion to, well, a good time, and you’re left with a fundamentally absurd movie that wants desperately to be taken seriously, the cinematic version of one of those annoying people who can’t take a joke.


Opened on April 30 in New York and Los Angeles and on Nov. 11, 2009 in Britain.

Directed by Daniel Barber; written by Gary Young; director of photography, Martin Ruhe; edited by Joe Walker; music by Martin Phipps and Ruth Barrett; production designer, Kave Quinn; costumes by Jane Petrie; produced by Kris Thykier, Matthew Vaughn, Matthew Brown and Keith Bell; released by Samuel Goldwyn Films (United States) and Lionsgate U.K. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 18 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Michael Caine (Harry Brown), Emily Mortimer (Frampton), Charlie Creed-Miles (Hicock), David Bradley (Leonard Attwell), Iain Glen (Childs), Sean Harris (Stretch), Ben Drew (Noel Winters), Jack O’Connell (Marky), Jamie Downey (Carl), Lee Oakes (Dean), Joseph Gilgun (Kenny) and Liam Cunningham (Sid Rourke).


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