Daniel Barber's Harry Brown is a strange film.
The story focuses on an old man, for whom the title of the film is taken, and who is played by Michael Caine. Frail, watching his friends and loved ones die, and his neighbourhood slowly become a place of fear, rather than safety, Harry, after the death of his friend by a young gang and the Police's inability to prosecute them properly, becomes a vigilante.
Harry Brown is a strange film because, through the presence of Michael Caine, it gains a lot more substance and quality that the script and direction rightly deserve. With Caine, Brown has a mix of fragility and fatality. The scene where Caine buys a gun, only to find himself looking at one held by the junkie he is buying it off, allows Caine to portray Brown as a man for whom there is nothing to be feared in death, for whom life in the way that we measure life--one with friends, family, goals, daily rituals, care--have ended through this last act of violence against his friend.
But, on the other hand, the script has all the hallmarks of a Steven Seagal film. A quiet man with a military background. Photos of a marine full of medals on the dressing table. A man who, once angered, is capable of shocking violence and coldness. Honestly, if Michael Caine had appeared on a battleship as a cook, Harry Brown could have been the new title for Under Siege, that seriously silly film that features Tommy Lee Jones chewing on the scenery as a girl pops out of a cake, topless. The youth 'gangs' of the film don't have any more character depth than Jones' terrorists. Indeed, as the film progresses, a network of drug bosses emerges, and it is they who are slowly poisoning the area that Brown lives in, they who are responsible for the corruption of youth. If one of Steven Seagal's film characters appeared the plot wouldn't have to change, nor would the action (a fat Seagal and an elderly Caine are capable of the same amount, really). Indeed, nothing about the backbone of the film would need to change at all if you swapped both actors around.
Yet, there is Michael Caine, Caine lifting this film out of the obscurity that a different actor would have brought it, Caine giving it depth and subtext.
You almost forget the ridiculous nature of the film that you are watching through Caine. You don't question the cardboard cut outs of drug gangs he does violence against. You don't ask yourself about the riots they portray. You don't cough to loudly at the end. You watch his performance, that of an elderly man struggling to regain his sense of safety, his sense of control in his life--and for the most part, you go with it. You're there.
You only occasionally think, "If only you had a pool ball and a white cloth in your hand. You could do that scene in Out For Justice, you know the one."