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Harry Brown (Blu-ray Review)

6 Sep, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Sony Pictures
Box Office $1.8 million
$27.96 DVD, $30.95 Blu-ray
‘R’ for strong violence and language throughout, drug use and sexual content.
Stars Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer.

After a long 1950s apprenticeship in British TV and minor film roles, Michael Caine broke out to some extent with 1964’s still highly regarded Zulu. But he has truly been “with us” (that is, as a reliable screen presence) ever since the following year’s The Ipcress File — when, in the first of his three films as secret agent Harry Palmer, he wore glasses in an era when it was even more common to see specs on baseball players than on motion picture leads.

As a younger actor, Caine was capable of conveying cool intelligence if the role called for it — but as an older one, he often sports an eye twinkle that’s especially beguiling for someone his age. And working another track and allowing natural crag to do what it will, he’s also become quite accomplished at projecting world-weariness. The last is the one exceptional selling trait this brutal Brit revenge piece has going for it — which, for a while, is enough. I was intrigued by some of the polarized reviews this movie got, but it isn’t very difficult to sort out what its virtues are and aren’t. Just about every professional viewer reacted to the same things, and your own reaction will almost be solely based on whether you think the actor’s assured performance is enough to carry 103 minutes.

Caine’s Harry (a military veteran) only has a couple things going for him at this point in his life, and one of them (a beloved wife) is dying in a hospital. He needs to pay his latest visit before it’s too late, but the quickest path to her is a tunnel underneath a road, and ever since A Clockwork Orange (at least), we know the type of sorts who loiter in those passageways. So that’s out, which ends up having terrible ramifications. It leaves Harry with one and apparently only one great friend for chess camaraderie — though this fellow has been having his own trouble with the local youth movement, which goes well beyond the vintage Brit hooliganism you can find in, say, None but the Lonely Heart. These two films represent a coincidental but beneficial tandem DVD release; movies don’t exist in a vacuum, and here’s a good example why.

Harry’s friend, who carries a concealed bayonet for protection, ends up being killed by the same — at which point, Harry, for all the dignity Caine brings to the role, doesn’t particularly care if he lives or dies. This significantly removes the built-in age disadvantage he has upon suddenly entering the vigilante trade, and the rest of the movie isn’t exactly packed to the rafters with love for one’s fellow man. It suggests something like an updated version (on the other side of the Atlantic) of Charles Bronson’s Death Wish, a phenomenon of its 1974 day that made enough blood money to spark two sequels and (I’m guessing) keep a lot of rural drive-ins and sleazy Time Square theaters that kept playing it open long beyond their logical life spans.

Harry has the same suspect moral — vigilantism will eventually mean you can walk through the tunnels — but movies now rarely spark the kind of op-ed outrage Death Wish did at the time. It basically becomes a story loop about Caine entering some pretty crummy places — the kind, for instance, where young women are drugged into making porno films — and taking care of business with some serious kabooms! I found it tolerable because I like British gangster movies on general principles, though it does seem as if there’ve been a glut on the market with them the past few years. And how many have stood out on the level of a Brighton Rock (1947, though a new remake is scheduled for the Toronto Film Festival); The Long Good Friday (1980, and just released on Blu-ray) or — to drop a couple notches to keep matters in the Michael Caine vernacular — the 1971 original of Get Carter? Not very many.

Harry also features Emily Mortimer as a policewoman who sniffs pretty quickly what Caine is doing. She’s an actress who regularly picks up the proceedings just by walking on the screen, and one can logically wonder how a first-time director (Daniel Barber, who joins cast members on a bonus commentary) landed her and Caine. Turns out that Harry is a debut feature but not debut film because Barber’s 2007 short subject The Tonto Woman got an Oscar nomination. Harry is that next step that basically does what next steps do: let the director announce “I am here” and offer proof that he can get notably simpatico work out of a two-time Oscar-winning actor. 

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