“You Failed to Maintain Your Weapon, Sir.”

04/28/2010 4:00 AM |

Harry Brown

Directed by Daniel Barber

In interviews, Michael Caine and director Barber have blamed the state of Kids Today on a failure of social institutions: education, housing, the foster care system. Their guilt might be liberal, but that doesn’t stop it from manifesting itself as hysterically conservative in the pleasurable but bonkers Harry Brown, a rightwing revenge fantasy gussied up in a social-realism aesthetic. Caine plays the title character, a classic Liam Neeson role give-or-take ten or twenty years: a widowed, emphysemic pensioner who lives as a prisoner of sorts in his East End housing project, overrun with terrorizing young people addicted to drugs and for-the-hell-of-it violence—the kinds of kids who’ll spit in your face, shove shit through your letterbox, smash your car window, kick the crap out of you, light your apartment on fire and then kill you if you complain. (Nights evoke The Omega Man stripped of its camp.) Brown becomes fed-up when his last friend is murdered and, finding no help from the police (of course!), transforms frustration into fury; a vigilante is born accidentally. 

You could call it Brown Begins, a kind of non-super hero’s unlikely origins story. He even has a would-be catchphrase—”you failed to maintain your weapon, sir”—which he delivers to a heroin-addicted gun dealer who just smoked a bowl (he also maintains a marijuana farm) out of the barrel of his gun while his OD’ing sex slave vomited on herself in what looks like a set on loan from Saw VII—dingy, dirty ruins of 20th Century prosperity. Barber plays this hammy hysteria straight and mostly, remarkably, gets away with it, faltering only when he stops viewing the nihilistic kids from upper story windows and gets in too close, letting the vermin speak for themselves and letting us get to know them. But as long as the film sticks to Caine, he lends it an emotional legitimacy, anchoring the film with the latest awesome performance of his hitherto stunning late-career (Is Anybody There?, Children of Men, some Christopher Nolan). 

If the material is as hopped up as the kids—with a scourge-of-heroin sensibility that would have seemed over-the-top even in the late 70s—the tone is anything but: a grimy, grungy, verite style that doesn’t cause the audience’s eyes to roll, even when Brown steals cash from the dealers and donates it to the church. (The Church, for Pete’s sake.) What does send this pro-torture, law-and-order, silent majority delirium off the rails is its finale: the police force attacks the housing project and the residents revolt; the subsequent riots conspicuously evoke the streets of Paris in ’68. It’s a wildly irresponsible conflation of homicidal, drug-addicted rapists and the political Left—except these kids are worse than terrorists, because they don’t even have ideals. It’s all just video games to them. (Brown is a veteran of Her Majesty’s forces, once stationed in Northern Ireland—he oughtta know!) If you come away from Harry Brown learning anything, it’s that the English police desperately need to start carrying guns. It’s like the Wild West over there, only worse.

Opens April 30