There’s a deceptive gravitas to the British vigilante thriller Harry Brown that some are bound to mistake for class—or even truth—in the way it grapples with one man’s violent stand against societal decay. Much of that is owed to Michael Caine, an actor of such rare dignity and stature that audiences are naturally willing to follow him anywhere, including into the heart of truly risible material. But Caine’s weary, quietly towering performance as a lonely widower who does battle with local hooligans is a classic case of lipstick on a pig, obscuring the film’s roots as simple-minded, reactionary swill of the Death Wish school. The character actor’s character actor wants the kids off his lawn.
The opening sets a queasy tone, as a would-be gang member on a motorcycle, cell-phone camera in hand, guns down a mother pushing a baby stroller. Initiation rituals like these are part of the cancer that’s metastasized around a crumbling South London apartment complex where violent, drug-dealing young thugs hold sway over terrorized residents while the police do nothing. Caine, an elderly former Royal Marine, commiserates with his friend David Bradley over the rise in crime, but advises him against taking the law into his own hands. When Bradley ignores his warning and pays the price, Caine finds his pleas for justice unsatisfactorily answered, so he calls on atrophied ass-kicking skills to get the job done. Emily Mortimer plays a sympathetic investigator who works to talk him off the ledge.
Director Daniel Barber keeps the tone muted and serious, and Mortimer’s turn as a crying-on-the-outside type of detective is unusual and oddly affecting just because of the way it plays against how seen-it-all authority types usually act. But no effort is made to question Caine’s thin justification for taking action—the law, as represented by Mortimer, does not necessarily fail—and the hoods are realized with no more complexity than a pack of unchained pit bulls. Harry Brown hacks up images of half-dead junkies and marijuana forests at random in a sweeping indictment of indulgent, amoral, directionless kids, but it can’t be bothered to dig any deeper than that. Put an actor of lesser bona fides in Caine’s role, amp up the pulp a little, and the film would be grindhouse trash; as is, it’s ready for the arthouse.