It’s Death Wish, The Brave One, and Gran Torino, but also so much more. Daniel Barber’s no-holds-barred revenge film Harry Brown transcends its genre ancestors by situating the great Michael Caine front and center, an aged force of brutal morality battling a younger generation of sadists and mongrels terrorizing a London slum. Caine’s anger slowly burns as he watches his wife die, a friend get murdered, and his neighborhood slowly succumb to fear, until finally his vigilance comes to a bloody boil. This violent resurrection is messy and potent, if not completely unbelievable.
Do we root for Harry as he picks these scum-bags off one by one? Yes, since Barber gives his villains no redeeming traits. These teens are savages, leisurely lorded over by an older criminal racket that can’t control them, and must be exterminated to restore civilized order. Not a surprise in films like this. The most interesting element of this familiar arc is how Barber inserts the relationship between violence and entertainment. The opening hook consists of cell phone footage of an unrelated gang initiation, then a horrifying random murder of an innocent single mother. This gives Harry Brown a raw intensity despite it’s polished look.
Barber’s film might not be revolutionary, but it does showcase a multi-faceted Michael Caine performance and a layered variation on the revenge genre, where the worst elements of technology and culture have joined forces and completely rebelled against civilized morality. And in this instance, Harry represents a silent majority of elderly innocents raging against this unpredictable social menace.