I felt I simply had to see Harry Brown, Daniel Barber's film that stars Michael Caine as an elderly widower living on a sink estate who turns vigilante when his only friend is killed by drug-dealing hoodie thugs. The possibility that the film might in fact be a right winger's idea of a documentary about 'Broken Britain' or, as one comment on the Mark Kermode blog puts it, "a horrible display of Daily Mail politics framed through the eyes of a filmmaker who aspires to be Guy Ritchie," simply had to be checked out.
Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian gave the film a largely positive review but some of the criticism I have read has struck me as little more than a knee jerk reaction from middle-class liberals who have never lived in poor and working-class communities or experienced firsthand how little the police care about investigating repeated violence and intimidation. Let me be upfront: in such circumstances I personally have no problem with proportionate revenge. If I was unfortunate enough to be beaten and stabbed in an underpass tunnel, I would expect my friends to unleash hell.
But as it turns out, the problems with the film do not lie with Michael Caine's vengeful pensioner. Indeed, his performance is superb - nuanced, often bleak and sad, transforming later into a hardening sense of purpose from a man with a repressed history of violence and with little left to lose. No, the bigger concerns are more specifically with the representation of the film's cartoon villains and with the second half of the film, which increasingly abandons any sense of reality in favour of a more and more absurd story.
It was bad enough that every villain seems to be carrying a gun, as though they think they are living in a US city. With a minimum sentence of five years in prison for possession of a firearm, this simply isn't the way it works in the real world. Then we witness a suspect in the murder of Harry's friend, Len, hurling abuse at his police interrogators during a supposedly 'no comment' interview, with his brief saying nothing. Yet somehow the suspect is released rather than arrested for using 'threatening words and behaviour'. Plenty have been held for far less and the idea that the police, no matter how clueless they can often be, wouldn't use any opportunity to hang on to someone like gang leader Noel if they could was wholly unbelievable. It wasn't the only time I found myself thinking, "well, that wouldn't happen".
Even less convincing was the representation of a riot that follows a police raid on the estate where Harry lives, one that ends up in the deployment of long shields against a barrage of petrol bombs, which we know the police prepare and train for but is actually incredibly rare - a once in a decade situation (outside of the north of Ireland, at least). One of the criticisms of the police is that their training for the worst case leads to the kind of over-reaction we saw at the G20 protests, but the impression the film gives is that the worst case is commonplace.
Indeed, everything in the latter part of the film is more and more extreme: stoking an already grim but potentially interesting scenario does indeed take it into Guy Ritchie/Nick Love territory and rather suggests a director who doesn't know when to stop. And as a result, the criticisms of the film for being reactionary stereotyping become increasingly justified - not because of Michael Caine, but because of everything else around him. It also means that the performances of other actors, particularly Emily Mortimer's insipid Inspector Frampton, are greatly diminished.
Nevertheless, Caine managed to make me mostly forget the film's many. many flaws. It's no Gran Torino, but with over 100 films to his credit, Harry Brown proves that Caine can still carry a leading role. What he really needs is a better director and a far more convincing script.