I might as well throw all of the references on the table right at the start:
Death Wish. Dirty Harry. Gran Torino. In fact, most of the Clint Eastwood oeuvre. Revenge films in general.
I'm not saying that Daniel Barber's Harry Brown is derivative. I'm saying that a lot of revenge films have similar plots
What distinguishes them is who the revenge-seeker is and what that quest costs the seeker, soul-wise. Like the best of the brand, Harry Brown has an endlessly fascinating, often surprising man at its center, for whom seeking payback is less problematic than you'd imagine.
The title character, played with a slippery mix of warmth and iciness by Michael Caine, is a pensioner living in what Americans call housing projects and the British call estates. That word, estates, doesn't summon the same image that "projects" does in the U.S., though the one where Harry lives his fallen on hard times.
A retired military man still haunted by some of the things he did in Northern Ireland (ostensibly in the Queen's name), Harry recently buried his wife and now drinks pints at the local pub with his mate, Leonard (David Bradley).
Leonard complains to Harry about the drug-dealing thugs who have taken the estate as their own territory. They've mocked Leonard for complaining and threatened him -- and, eventually, when he speaks up too loudly, they kill him.
His death, however, doesn't seem to register with the cops, who are already trying to deal with escalating gang crime and violence in the estates. Harry correctly surmises that, as well-intentioned as she may be, the investigating detective, Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer), is hamstrung to devote more attention to one murder.
So Harry takes the matter into his own hands and starts tracking down those responsible, slowly figuring out how can he hurt them the most. D.I. Frampton notices that prominent gang members suddenly are turning up dead -- and finds that the chief suspect happens to be that kindly old gent, Harry, the one who actually has extensive experience using weapons of all sorts.
Gary Young's script -- and Barber's direction -- create a dire inner-city landscape, one that has the brutalism of mid-20th-century modern architecture, now so overrun by crime that it's taken on an Escape from New York feel.
Vigilantism is always a hot-button topic, but Harry Brown doesn't hesitate to make Harry a hero, someone who has stepped outside a system that is overwhelmed and ineffective to render his own justice. On the other hand, the film also makes note of the fact that violence begets violence -- and that each subsequent act moves things in unexpected directions.
Caine has reached an age where directors seem content to let him play to his kindlier side. But Caine still has those chilly killer eyes when he wants to. Here he perfectly taps into the soldier who knew when he went too far but couldn't stop himself sometimes. He's living with regret, but like William Munny, Clint Eastwood's character in Unforgiven, he has moved away from violence. Violence, however, knows right where to find him.
Like The Long Good Friday and a few other films from 70s and 80s England, Harry Brown comes from a raw, tougher place than, say, the Guy Ritchie gangster hijinx of the past decade. These characters don't banter or practice gymnastics; they act brutally and are brutalized in return.
Caine and Mortimer have an interesting friction as unlikely opponents in a manhunt and unlikely allies later on. Mortimer has a flinty quality that Caine seems to spark to, though it's more about an older man reexperiencing some of the excitement of his youth.
Harry Brown is hard and violent, a thriller that makes no pretense about the explicit toll of violence. But it's built around a strong character and an award-winning kind of performance by Michael Caine.