With his wife having recently passed away and his best friend bullied daily by the drug-peddling gangs on his estate, aged ex-Royal Marine Harry Brown (Caine) decides to come out of retirement to clean up the neighbourhood
At a recent screening of Harry Brown, no less than Michael Caine’s 110th film, Empire witnessed one of his friends come up to him at the end and say, “Wow, Michael. That doesn’t pull any punches, does it?” Caine smiled back. “You bet it doesn’t. But I’ll be in trouble now,” he said, gesturing towards his wife, Shakira. “I told the missus it was a bit like Mary Poppins…”
And, let’s be clear, one thing Harry Brown is not, is anything like Mary Poppins.
Most obviously, it’s the UK’s answer to Gran Torino, with its disgruntled OAP putting the smackdown on the smackheads polluting the turf he’s called home for years. It also borders, alarmingly at points, on a fascist’s fantasy, Caine’s Harry shooting, barb-wiring and torturing his hoodie prey without much in the way of remorse and with much in the way of graphic close-up.
In lesser hands, frankly, it could have played like a tooled-up episode of Jeremy Kyle. But Daniel Barber’s economic direction — in, astonishingly, his first feature — gives his revenge flick a distinct identity of its own. From a truly scary, immediate and immersive pre-credits sequence, througha series of unbearably tense scenes (the standout being Caine’s visit to a drug dealer’s den) and to a wonderfully Western climax, Barber takes his time, giving Harry room to breathe. We’re there when his wife dies. We’re there when his friend is brutalised by the gangs on his estate. And, as a result, we’re there with him when he exacts his savage payback.
It’s unsettling, it’s not for the faint of heart and — to repeat — it’s no Mary Poppins. But it is a powerful and accessible movie that’s brave enough to ask uneasy questions amid its explosive set-pieces and witty one-liners. Not to mention one that reconfirms Caine as the unparalleled king of cool. His transformation from chess-playing old codger to gun-toting Dirty Harry is a masterclass in slow-build.
The same, sadly, can’t be said for a series of underwritten, sometimes nonsensical subplots (Emily Mortimer’s daft cop and Iain Glen’s moronic boss especially underdeveloped). Nevertheless, Caine’s mesmerising, tough-as-old-boots performance makes Harry Brown, if no Get Carter 2, somewhere not a million miles removed. Get some.
Essential stuff, even by the big mans considerable standards.