Director – Daniel Barber, Screenplay – Gary Young, Producers – Keith Bell, Matthew Brown, Kris Thykier & Matthew Vaughn, Photography – Martin Ruhe, Music – Ruth Barrett & Martin Phipps, Visual Effects Supervisor – Pedro Sabrosa, Visual Effects – Framestore, Special Effects Supervisors – Richard Conway & Bob Hollow, Prosthetic Makeup – Simon Rose, Production Design – Kave Quinn. Production Company – Hanway Films/UK Film Council/Prescience/Marv Film Partners/Framestore/Robbins Hardwick Productions
Michael Caine (Harry Brown), Emily Mortimer (Detective-Inspector Alice Frampton), Charlie Creed Miles (Sergeant Terry Hickok), David Bradley (Len Attwell), Iain Glen (Superintendent Andrew Childs), Liam Cunningham (Sid Rourke), Sean Harris (Stretch), Ben Drew (Noel Winters), Jack O’Connell (Marky), Lee Oakes (Dean Saunders), Joseph Gilgun (Kenny)
Harry Brown is a former Marine, now an aging pensioner living in a flat on a housing estate in London. He is distraught with the death of his wife. His best friend Len Atwell lives in fear of the crime and senseless violence conducted by the drug-dealing youths in the area. Len shows Harry a bayonet he carries to protect himself but Harry warns against using it. The next day, Harry receives news that Len has been found stabbed to death with the bayonet. Investigating police inspector Alice Frampton says there is not much they can do because any charges will be dismissed in court on the grounds that the attackers acted in self-defence. After a drug addict tries to rob him of his wallet on the way home from the pub, a drunken Harry accidentally turns the addict’s knife back on him. Harry then goes to a drug den to buy a gun. Disgusted by the way they treat an overdosing woman, Harry instead shoots the dealers and burns the den to the ground. He then takes the guns and sets out to exact violent revenge against the youths that killed Len.
The last few years have seen a surprising revival of interest in the vigilante film. These have included high profile efforts such as The Brave One (2007), Death Sentence (2007) and Law Abiding Citizen (2009), while we have been promised a remake of Death Wish (1974), the Charles Bronson progenitor of the genre, since at least 2005. Surprising among these is a number of British entries, including Dead Man’s Shoes (2004), Outlaw (2007) and Straightheads/Closure (2007), which, along with Harry Brown, show that fears of social disorder are on the increase in England. Harry Brown shares a number of similarities with Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008), which similarly had an aging soldier taking up arms to stop youth crime in his neighbourhood.
If Harry Brown is to be believed, then life on the British housing estates – large blocks, towers and even suburbs that were built from the 1950s onwards as housing units for low income people – is something that approaches a near total anarchy that is as bad as some of the big US cities like Detroit and Baltimore. The casual violence, vandalism and drug use that we see is alarming – none more so than the disturbing opening sequence shot via handheld camcorder where youths joy riding on a motorcycle start randomly shooting at and then kill a mother pushing a child in a stroller. Even the police seem powerless to do much and are at one point driven back by rioting residents of the estate throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. The actors playing the street youths have been made up and dressed to seem as filthy and drug-addled as possible – the arrested youth gang are allowed to play with a maximum degree of venomous nastiness and harsh anti-authoritarianism during the interrogation scenes, while Michael Caine’s venture into the drug den is lit and set dressed to seem like a venture into a Hellish inferno. [Harry Brown makes interesting contrast to Attack the Block (2011), which was set on a near-identical British housing estate and has many similarities but contrarily saw its petty criminal youth as redeemable heroes in the frontline against an alien invasion].
Like almost all other vigilante films, Harry Brown is a naked exposure of urban fears. Death Wish was fired up by the feelings of 1970s middle-classes that urban centres having become lawless and overridden by crime and many of its sequels and successors stridently take up the notion that a red-blooded American man is duty bound to take up arms and defend his home and family; while there have been female vigilante films such as Thelma and Louise (1991), Dirty Weekend (1992), Baise-Moi (2000) and Enough (2002) that deal with abused women standing up for themselves. Both Gran Torino and Harry Brown make direct appeals to the older generation in seeing they are at fear of the growing lawlessness, disrespect and contempt displayed by today’s youth – to such extent that the youths are only regarded as worthy of extermination. These vigilante films centre around common plot arcs – the murder of a friend or member(s) of the protagonist’s family by petty criminals in acts of senseless violence; the feeling that crime in the modern world has gotten out of control or that society has become diseased; that the law is ineffectual in trying to provide adequate justice; the belief that the only reasonable closure the protagonist can affect is in personally taking up arms against the crimes; the unofficial tolerance of the police who regard the vigilante as doing something they wish they themselves were sanctioned to do.
With the exception of the avenging woman film Ms 45/Angel of Vengeance (1981), the only one of these films to even suggest that its protagonist might be mentally disturbed was Taxi Driver (1976), although even that seemed to regard the end resolution as ambiguously heroic. You cannot help but think there is something irresponsible to these films in pandering to fears about crime and lawlessness and advocating taking the law into one’s own hands. In real life, vigilantes (who almost always act as groups rather than individuals) have a tendency to be unconcerned about small details such as proof of an accused’s guilt, while the issue of the rights being wronged seems more about mob rule and subjective opinion, if not prejudices, than any universal sense of wrongs being righted. If you have any doubt about this, simply note that by any definition of vigilantism, you have to include groups like the KKK and the IRA.
Harry Brown emerges as one of the better among the recent spate of vigilante films. It never does anything as radical as reinventing the cliches and plot arcs of the vigilante film, it just writes them well. It is violent and brutal, although not with the visceral rawness of Death Sentence – the tone of Daniel Barber’s direction is muted, quiet and not over-dramatised. Yet at the same time we do not have the vigilante film watered down to the tepid liberalism of something like The Brave One. Michael Caine is perfectly cast, bringing the respectable legacy of his acting career to bear on the part. All others play well up against him, with there being a strong and coolly intelligent performance from Emily Mortimer as the police detective.
Daniel Barber next went on to make The Keeping Room (2014).