Michael Caine, in 'Harry Brown'

Dir. Daniel Barber
(2010, R, 103 min)
★ ★ ½

Michael Caine is a good choice for the title role in Harry Brown because he doesn’t seem like a tough guy. The Cockney actor, better known for softer-spoken, urbane roles in films like The Cider House Rules and as the even-tempered butler Alfred in the recent Batman movies, is jarring to see as a hardened vigilante. The against-type casting makes the film altogether darker; the violence plays less like revenge fantasy and more like tragedy.

The film is effective about two-thirds of the way through before going over the top with a chaotic action climax. It opens with unsettling videos from cell phone cameras showing first a gang initiation and then the horrific shooting of a young mother pushing a stroller. There is no motive for the murder; it amounts to target practice. This footage is the film’s most disturbing, showing violence at its most casual and depraved, and setting the stage for the clash between an older, nobler generation and a new breed of youthful nihilists.

The early character-driven scenes are the film’s best. We meet Harry, a retired marine who served in the war with Northern Ireland. The focus is on Caine’s expressive face in scenes like one where he watches from his window as an attempted car theft turns into a brutal beating; there’s an evocative shot that shows him helplessly withdrawing behind his curtain, but he’s the only one in the tenement who has even bothered to look. After the murder of his friend by local thugs, he takes the law into his own hands, and in a few scenes of extreme violence, Caine grips us as he, with gentlemanly grace that makes him even more sinister, turns Harry’s resignation into righteous anger.

Then the film loses its way. Investigating the crimes at Harry’s tenement is a pair of detectives: Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and Terry Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles). It’s Alice who takes a special interest in these killings; we’re told she requested a transfer from white-collar crimes to the homicide unit, and there might be a very good reason for that, but we never learn it. In defense of Mortimer, whom I admire, if her performance seems rather adrift, so does her character; screenwriter Gary Young never figures out who she is, giving her some portentous glances and a few emotional lines near the end about the cycle of violence, but he generally strands her in limbo. She’s emotionally affected by Harry’s violent campaign, but vaguely so; we wait for character development that never comes.

Late in the film comes a police raid on the tenement that sparks a fiery riot involving, seemingly, every single person in the apartment complex and visitors from other riots. The rioters seem mostly young and number far greater than the dozen or so thugs the story directly concerns. Are they all hoodlums, or are there other innocent victims like Harry participating to show their anger? The story descends into wanton bloodshed and an unnecessary last-minute revelation that turns the film’s interesting moral dilemmas into a shoot-em-up. Daniel Barber, in his feature directing debut — he’s an Oscar nominee for his 2007 short film The Tonto Woman — shows a command of style, but sometimes commands too much of it, and in these later scenes breaks from the subtlety that distinguished the first half. There’s a moment where two characters are driving and are blind-sided by two other cars that crash without any discernible reason or purpose. In a way, that’s what the film does.