Michael Caine is politically active in England. He is a crusader against gang violence that threatens to tear the fabric of society apart. Beyond immigrants’ discontent, economically penurious Londoners often flock to street gangs as a means of survival. Deciding to make Harry Brown is part and parcel of Caine’s effort to expose the terrifying underbelly of street crime in his home country.
As the camera begins rolling a woman is murdered while walking her newborn in a stroller. The camera angles are dizzying on purpose to suggest the world as it is frantically seen by a slaughterer high on various narcotics. We are then privy to the intimate details of protagonist Harry Brown’s life. His wife is in hospice and is no longer conscious of who he. His reaction to her infirmity and subsequent death is touching. The only solace that remains for Harry is his best friend Leonard’s (David Bradley) company. Leonard is a former priest and is also a widower. Both men live in shady districts where crime runs rampant. Together they play chess and discuss some painful details of their lives. They find comfort in one another’s company. Unfortunately, while in their local pub of choice owned by Sid Rourke (Liam Cunningham), Leonard notices drugs being sold. Feeling indignity and outrage he begins to take an interest in his neighborhood’s crime problems.
Feeling disturbed by his antics, local criminals begin lighting feces on fire and throwing it onto the priest’s doorstep. The smoke alone causes him to have breathing troubles. Their menacing presence triggers something deep within the pacifist who decides to arm himself with a WWI bayonet and to potentially wreak havoc if provoked. When Leonard shows his weapon to his best friend (a former marine stationed in Ireland), Harry expresses shock and asks Leo to consult with the police. Unfortunately the police have their hands tied and offer little if any help at all. Shortly thereafter two officers pay Harry a visit to ask questions about the death of his friend Father Leonard Attwell. The two officers are investigator Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and investigator Terry Hicock (Charlie Miles). He evades their questions and looks mortified over the news of his only friend’s demise.
Harry is halfway to resurrecting his military skills when he is trailed home following a mournful night of drinking at the pub. The attacker is a drug-crazed maniac who threatens the old man with a knife. Harry turns on a switch mentally and uses his training to repel the attacker's thrust and stab him in the heart. After quickly disposing of the evidence he feverishly returns home. As soon as Harry enters his apartment we see the shadow of a tall and treacherous monster. This is Harry, he is a changed man and this scene brilliantly lit only by shadows and surrounded by whispers is orchestrated brilliantly.
Soon thereafter inspector Frampton questions the suspects in Leonard’s death. Many of the criminals responsible uncoincidentally live in Harry’s neighborhood. He spies on them from his windows and from the jagged panes of his friend’s vacated apartment. Meanwhile, during their questioning at the police station, the gang members threaten to rape Frampton and refuse to comment. They are eventually released and remain under suspicion. Unfortunately for them Harry has evidence of their crime which they idiotically recorded on their cellular phones.
He begins by following one of the drug dealers he notices in the pub to his hide-out in a darkly lit, out of the way neighborhood. Harry works his way inside both by looking old and unthreatening and by asking to buy a gun to "shoot the pigeons on the roof". The two unlucky criminals do not have any knowledge of Harry’s conviction or intentions. He actually went inside the hellhole where millions of dollars of pot is being grown to purchase a weapon. Once inside he witnesses not only the two men’s heroine abuse, but their repeated drugging and raping of a young woman who is clearly overdosing while they idly watch her die. His concern over the woman leads to their anger and a gun fight erupts. Trained with lethal skills by the marines (though those skills have self-admittedly diminished since he gave up that part of his life to be with his now deceased wife) Harry is easily able to dismantle and murder the two druggies. He is now armed with both weapons and money. He immediately turns his attention to the victimized young woman whom he drives to the hospital and places thousands of pounds (English currency) on her possession. He beeps the horn to alert the authorities and then disappears into the night.
Inspector Frampton meanwhile becomes convinced of the old man’s role as a vigilante while everyone else dismisses her accusation as the work of an overactive imagination. Even her partner inspector Hicock admits if her suspicion is true why not allow the man to eliminate the criminals since the justice system is so blind. Harry manages to kill all but one of the young kids responsible for Leonard’s death but one escapes. This leads to an impactful and harrowing ending that moviegoers will likely never forget.
The lesson Harry learns is that showing mercy to those that would show you none is a dangerous principle to uphold. While all of this unfolds the head of the tactical police force inspector Childs (Iain Glen) prepares an assault on the district with the most criminal and gang activity. The intersection of Harry and Frampton’s fates and the police assault on crime causes tragic consequences, but in many ways justice is served.
Harry Brown presents an orgy of violence, some in the name of youthful discontent and anger, and some in the name of heroic vigilantism. Caine and director Barber not only introduce Americans to England’s problem with gang violence, they also ask us a familiar question about how to handle/approach the situation. How can one fight asymmetry with symmetry? Why arrest murderers and drug dealers only to have their rate of recidivism reach nearly 100%? Without adequate rehabilitation or reform why not kill them and clear the streets for families and regular people to live in safety? If the crime lords can be quietly eliminated by a man or men of good conscience why not commission them to do so? Why bother with proceedings and following protocol when the criminals are committing atrocities every day against innocent people and are addicting young people to drugs and lives of violence? The transformation from loving husband and best friend to vigilante murderer is stunning and could be the best ever portrayed. Harry Brown’s motivation is pure but his actions are not and what does that mean for society? Harry Brown is a stunning and dizzying movie that will leave you shocked and awed.
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