Friday, May 28, 2010

Review: Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2010)

Harry Brown tries to be both a tale of revenge mourning the loss of a friend, and a social commentary. It is in the latter that it is significantly let down. Set predominantly in and around a housing estate in South London, the film presents the streets as dominated by out-of-control youth gangs who exert senseless aggravation and violence on the innocent local residents. This violent context is demonstrated in a gritty opening sequence, shot on hand-held by one of the perpetrators. A group on motorcycles antagonize a lady and her child, initially shooting at her to frighten her, until one of the bullets finds the mark and she is killed. In the escape from the scene, the motorcycle is hit by a truck, the passengers are thrown off and the camera lands on the ground, facing the bloodied bodies on the road. It is here that the credits start, and the radio broadcast of this incident can be heard playing over them. We are then introduced to Harry Brown (Michael Caine), an elderly ex-Marine, who is living alone while his wife is suffering in hospital. His current ritual is to visit her and then meet his closest friend Leonard for a game of chess in the pub. They discuss the serious drug problem on the streets, and the domestic disturbances common to his estate. It is obvious it is out of control, as Harry avoids crossing the highway through the underpass, fearing the gang that patrols there. Leonard, clearly troubled, tells Harry that he is continuously being harassed by some youngsters, and since his police report was ignored, he has decided to defend himself. The following morning, Harry receives a visit from Detective Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) who reveals that Leonard had been found dead in the underpass, likely killed by the kids from the estate. A young man is arrested on suspicion, and in a montage, we see him and his fellow gang members interrogated by the police. Once it is discovered that Leonard was carrying a large Military bayonet and may have attacked the boys initially, the hopes of a murder trial are slim. Following a drunken binge mourning Leonard's funeral, Harry is held up at knife point and manages to stab and kill the mugger and stagger away. But once he learns that the boys responsible likely will not be duly punished, he seeks to bring justice into his own hands.

The best sequences are Harry's wrath on the unsuspecting youngsters. Taking one hostage and questioning him on his involvement while threatening to shoot out his knee caps reveals a video of the murder on the boys phone. He then chains the boy up and lures his friends into a firefight inside the underpass. Two are killed, but one escapes, and Harry is unable to pursue. With the increasing body count, the police begin a street sweep rounding up all suspected gang members, but it leads only to violent rioting, as cars are destroyed and the police huddle is hit with glass bottles and Molotov cocktails. These scenes are quite well done, but really pushes the hapless police force angle. One of the of most painfully prolonged sequences is when Harry attempts to purchase a gun from a pair of junkies. He is invited into their drug den, wanders through a growth of marijuana plants, and ends up in a room with a young girl lying on the couch overdosed on heroin, with graphic porn playing. The group have small chatter as Stretch, a horrible scarred individual, shoots up on heroin and smokes crack, and reveals that he keeps the young woman drugged up in order to use her against her will for his films. It is an unnecessarily dangerous endeavor, it is also ridiculously long and excessively disgusting for what is ultimately an attempt to purchase a firearm. I also thought the conclusion wrapped itself together all too conveniently. It seemed like the climax would include a violent stand-off, and that Emily Mortimer would become too involved but ultimately survive, and there were no surprises. With the exception of the opening sequence, which was very well done, I found the whole film to be very generic, right down to key technical features like it's editing and the score.

I felt there were too many superfluous themes and to create the atmosphere the film throws together seemingly every drug problem and gang related issue, without ever addressing one in particular. The kids are a menace for seemingly infinite reasons, and apart from Noel Winter, they are never closely examined. Treated as a universal group, there is seemingly no hope for any of them as they are drug riddled, are violent to innocent pedestrians and have no respect for law enforcement. This is why I found a film like Shane Meadows' This is England (2006) to be a more effective social commentary, as it examines these gangs from a more personal level. The goals of the Justice Department are brushed over, and Alice's interest in Brown lacks any passion, as does Emily Mortimer's plain performance overall. I found her to be very miscast. The interrogation montage lacked any real imagination and the questioning seemed like it was just going through the processes. The coarseness of the youngsters' language and their disrespect for the police seemed somewhat forced for shock value, as was most of the brutal violence. With such an incompetent police force, it came down to one man who is frustrated by the lack of justice and fueled by anger at the death of his friend, to do what is required to reduce the crime limit. Michael Caine's performance was very good. His soft spoken nature, and his tired, weary eyes are mirrored by some swift shifts into malice. In such a decrepit existence, he can be acknowledged both as a vigilante, and as a hero. It is also not as absorbing, or well constructed as the Clint Eastwood directed Gran Torino (2008), which it has been falsely compared to. Eastwood's film gave us time to acclimatize to Walt Kowalski, his changing opinion of his neighbors, and his decision to help them. Harry is likable from the beginning, but his existence is forced upon us to the extreme, and nothing is left to interpret. It is inevitable that he will rise to be heroic, but the rebellious youngsters are thrown at us through the interrogations and have no real role but to represent the masses of youths that riot at the conclusion. No goodness beyond the love of family is presented at all, just a morbid state of Hell that miraculously passes once the riots have been contained. Overall, I found it to be very disappointing, for many of the above reasons but purely for the lack of depth to his targets, and the general laziness in the depiction of the police force.

Overall: 2 1/2 Stars

1 comment:

  1. Very well written review. I wasn't very interested in this movie to begin with, now I know that it isn't worth my time.