Wednesday, December 05, 2012
WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Harry Brown
Generally speaking, revenge/vigilante titles are films of two halves. Extended first act: protagonist gets pushed till he can’t take it anymore, either by nasty shit getting vented on the people they love, or nasty shit raining down on them directly. Shorter but incredibly graphic second act: definitive cessation of protagonist taking it any more, turning of tables, antagonists get their arses handed to them on a plate. Or plates.
There are no surprises in the set-up or narrative execution of ‘Harry Brown’. Absent the presence of an A-list star in the title role and you could be watching a 1970s grindhouse flick. Substitute Michael Caine for Charles Bronson, chavs for pimps and a council estate for some brownstone tenements and ‘Harry Brown’ is basically ‘Death Wish’. Only with that crucial scene-setting first act directed by Ken Loach.
Hence a first hour that goes something like this: Harry gets up in the morning, joints creaking and moving slowy; Harry caresses the unrumpled side of the bed that his wife used to sleep on; Harry makes a cup of tea and some toast in the most depressing kitchenette ever to be captured on celluloid; Harry makes his way warily through the estate he lives in; Harry hesitates on taking the underpass on account of the hoodies foregathered there; Harry goes the long way round, gawd knows that his aching old bones could do without the diversion; Harry visits his wife in hospital, hers the only occupied bed in an otherwise sterile and empty ward (yeah right: Mrs Harry is expiring on the NHS and spare beds are a fucking fantasy, my friends!); Harry has a lonely pint in a drab pub; Harry has a second, slightly less lonely pint with his mate Len (David Bradley) and they play chess, two old codgers, forgotten and alone; Harry goes home to his spartan and glumly decorated flat.
Depressed yet? You soon will be.
Harry’s wife dies, then Len tells him that he’s terrified of the kids on the estate and that he’s packing a bayonet for protection. Harry, who it turns out is an ex-Marine (check out his regimental photograph: if that’s not a production still from ‘A Bridge Too Far’, I’ll eat my beret), urges Len not to do anything foolish; to go to the police. Len scornfully retorts that he has and they’ve done nothing. Len returns home only for the chavvy little bastards in question to try to burn his flat down. Next up, DI Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and DS Terry Hicock (Charlie Creed-Mills) turn up at Harry’s door to tell him that Len expired after a run in with the youths he suspected of the arson.
Frampton and Hicock pull in some local youths – ringleader: Noel Winters (Ben Drew a.k.a. rapper Plan B) – but when it becomes evident that Len was carrying an offensive weapon, they look set on getting away with it.
Here endeth the Ken Loach bit.
Harry sets up surveillance in Len’s burned out flat, discovering that he had a direct view of the drug deals, beatings and knee-tremblers that constitute an average day in the life of the underpass. He identifies Noel pretty quickly. Gets a line on the rest of the gang. Recognises a drug/arms dealer from his local. Tails him back to his business premises. Enquiries after the acquisition of some weaponry.
It’s at this point – an extended sequence in which Harry visits twitchy dealer Stretch (Sean Harris) and his cowed henchman Kenny (Joseph Gilgun) and morphs from fish out of water to stone cold avenger – that ‘Harry Brown’ happily pulls the plug on the hour of determinedly squalid social realism that’s preceded it and goes sprinting off, gun in hand and spouting heavy-handed soliloquies, in the direction of ClicheVille.
Not that much of the first half has been subtle (Len’s funeral is a particular nauseating example of emotional pornography, the camera following a cavalcade of hearses bedecked with flowers only for the cortege to disappear offscreen and reveal Len’s grave with only Harry and presiding priest in attendance), but the second half positively revels in audience-bludgeoning.
Smack! Faakin’ thick-necked chavs gettin’ in yer face, innit?
Wallop! Faakin’ guns n drugs n pimpin’ bitches out, gertcha?
Boot! Right wing fascist bastard coppers who’s as bent as the crims, guv’nor!
Slap! Put that faakin’ remote control down, yew cahnt!
And so it rolls. Director Daniel Barber is probably still singing hosannahs that Michael Caine signed on the dotted line. Without him, ‘Harry Brown’ would be all kinds of piss-awful. But when you get Harry giving one of Noel’s underlings the kind of working over in order to extract information that Batman doles out to the Joker in the interrogation scene in ‘The Dark Knight’, the result is electrifying. If Harry’s “you failed to maintain your weapon” speech, with its discourse on a formative experience from the character’s military service, recalls Alfred’s “some men just want to watch the world burn” monologue in Nolan’s epic, the Harry-beats-it-out-of-a-thug sequence plays out like Bruce Wayne’s taken a vacation and given Alfred a by-your-leave to get medieval on whoever.
Unfortunately, the comparison soon diminishes. Much of Harry’s vengeful rampage, notwithstanding how gratifying it is to watch a pension age Michael Caine give the youth of today one in the yarbles, suffers from a reality disconnection. His infirmity only ever kicks in when the script demands it, and a man in his seventies who (the early scenes hint) is arthritic and suffering (as latter scenes state unambiguously) from emphysema, nonetheless spends the mid section of the film hoofing it from shoot out to shoot out, pausing only to give a hoodie young enough to be his great-grandson a comprehensive whipping without even breaking a sweat. He’s a military man, a crack-shot, one step ahead of his antagonists the whole time, yet he makes an elementarily stupid decision in the finale, again purely because the script demands it. The chavs are so clichéd, they make the youths in ‘Attack the Block’ seem like finely nuanced creations of the screenwriter’s art. Mortimer’s idealistic Detective Inspector is incredibly badly written and Mortimer’s performance – sad to say, because she’s been awesome in everything else I’ve seen her in – is utterly unconvincing.
As regards Drew/Plan B, the guy’s birth name is Benjamin Paul Balance-Drew. Wooooo, urban rebel with the double-barrelled surname. At least he doesn’t hold his gun sideways like so many fake tough guys. I’ll give him that.
So, yeah. ‘Harry Brown’. A grim, humourless, clichéd and derivative movie. But one that got real fucking lucky in its leading man.