Everything else is just a bonus, which is why casting Michael Caine in “Harry Brown” instantly elevates the material beyond mere pulp.
Caine, hovering in his late 70s, is an odd choice to play a vigilante even if vague echoes of “Gran Torino” swirl around the project.
But this sharp British import reminds us danger doesn’t care about the numbers on your birth certificate.
Harry Brown (Caine) lives in a neighborhood overrun by drug dealers, thugs and others with zero respect for law and order.
That doesn’t matter much to Harry, who is too busy visiting his sick wife than watching his neighborhood decay. But when she finally passes, and Harry’s best friend is slaughtered by the local thugs, Harry decides its time to fight back.
This former Marine hasn’t forgotten how to kill, even if emphysema and old age make every movement a struggle.
The local law enforcement in the form of a jittery Emily Mortimer suspects ol’ Harry might be behind the dwindling thug population. But how could this wheezy old man take a bite out of crime?
Caine makes Harry into a thoughtful killer, a man whose humanity isn’t extinguished even while he pumps the bad guys full of lead. But his transformation from sedentary senior to killing machine is too sudden, too hurried for the film’s own good.
The story also fails to develop the relationship between Harry and Mortimer’s character, something which becomes painfully obvious during the film’s waning moments.
But Caine proves magnetic as a man who can no longer stand by while his neighbors endure a nonstop wave of thuggery. Harry discusses his military background with great pain early in the film, as if it’s a side of his life he’d rather leave behind.
The local goon squad won’t let that happen.
“Harry Brown” doesn’t flinch in portraying the assorted drug dealers, rapists and killers as people without redeeming qualities. One harrowing sequence smack dab in the middle of a drug den is the most unforgettable moment on screen this year.
The film can’t be bothered to flesh out their characters beyond one interrogation scene, so when they’re staring down the barrel of Harry’s gun there’s little emotional pay off – just the kinetic sense of justice being served.
Not that there’s much wrong with that in the fishbowl of the vigilante template.
“Harry Brown” hews close to the genre’s trappings, but Caine’s grounding presence makes the movie far more compelling than the recent “Death Sentence” or even “The Brave One.”
The film’s refusal to treat its hero as anything but an old soldier fighting one last battle is more than enough to recommend it.
DID YOU KNOW: Michael Caine, born Maurice Micklewhite, spotted the woman who would become his second wife on a coffee commercial. He did whatever it could to contact her, and they’ve been married ever since.