My favorite movie of 2008 was The Dark Knight, which Michael Caine co-starred as friend and father-figure to the comic book hero who was essentially a vigilante acting after the deaths of people he loved. This British film has a similar setup. The 77-year-old Michael Caine stars as Harry Brown, a man who doesn't don a cape and mask but who does become a vigilante acting after the deaths of someone he loves.
There were quite a few critics who didn't like this movie because of the way it deals or rather doesn't deal with the various social problems it spotlights. My argument is that the Batman movies hardly addressed whatever social problems were inherent. With so many movies about people who become or want to become crime fighters, I thought this one was brilliant in that it puts it in the hands of hte most unlikely of persons, an old man.
Some critics also drew comparisons to Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino. Eastwood's late 2008 hit film was less like a revenge tale or vigilante story as opposed to Harry Brown. Yes, Eastwood and Caine's characters are very similar. Both are senior citizens who have lost their wives. Both are highly trained with guns. Both are victimized by young men in street gangs. Yet, filmmaker Daniel Barber places his Harry Brown in a much more desperate situation and makes the tone a whole lot darker, dirtier and more disgusting.
This is Barber's first feature film. Barber studied graphic design in England where he was born. He has worked in the advertising industry since 1993, directing commercials like Adidas, Sony and the BBC. Barber was nominated for an Oscar for a short film called The Tonto Woman, a 35-minute western based on an Elmore Leonard story. Based on that acclaim, Barber was offered this film and the chance to work with two-time Oscar winner, Michael Caine.
Caine's performance is of course spot on. His Harry Brown goes from depression to aggression very well. He wears world-weary probably like no other. He can express strength and suffering in one scene and have it flow out so sublimely, and it works so well set against the gritty yet contained landscape that Barber photographs. The landscape is a section of South London surrounding an apartment complex, which is a high-rise tower block referred to as "The Estate." The complex is apparently poverty-stricken and of course crime-ridden, filled with drug-dealing and violent young people.
One such drug-dealing and violent young person is Noel Winters, played by Ben Drew. Ben Drew is probably not well-known in the United States, but, in the United Kingdom, Ben Drew is known as the British Eminem, except he experiments with various music styles and is a far better singer. Drew performs music under the name Plan B and has received much critical success. Drew even contributes as song to this movie's soundtrack that shows his amazing musical talents.
Mainly, Drew shows us though his remarkable acting talents. Drew shines in an intense, police interrogation scene that seems rather innocuous and almost predictable. Yet, Barber doesn't simply downplay the scene. He dedicates considerable time to it, and somehow manages to escalate the combative nature until you're no longer watching people sitting across each other in a bare room talking but instead watching a kind of knock-down-drag-out, verbal game of checkers.
The scene climaxes with a fevered monologue from Ben Drew that leaves one awestruck. Barber coaxes a punchful performance out of him. Emily Mortimer (Scream 3 and Match Point) is also in that scene. She plays Alice, the police interrogator who suspects both Noel Winters and Harry Brown. She is aware of the problems and her organization's inability to find true justice. She represents empathy and compassion in an environment where it's lacking.
Five Stars out of Five Rated R for strong violence and language, drug use and sexual content Running Time: 1 hr. and 43 mins.