It's not as if Harry Brown isn't a strong film. By even the highest of standards it's a technically accomplished, very powerful production. There's nothing slick or tricky about the camera or its cinematography, but all the stark details of this hard city neighborhood are perfectly (read: hopelessly) rendered, and they're pivotal to the maze in which we find the title character.
Michael Caine, too, is stellar, as ex-serviceman and widower Brown --a man pushed to the edge to take up arms against his aggressor.
His blended elderly statesman appeal with a tough-as-nails approach drudge up long forgotten T.V. images of Edward Woodward's
"The Equalizer." Perhaps a more appropriate comparison is found in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, a film about a retired bad-boy cowboy in the Wild Wild West trying to forget vile actions from years ago. It takes time for Brown, as it took for Eastwood's Munny, to slide back into that former hardened bad-boy with balls role. The passing of Brown's wife, and then the murder of his friend by a group of street thugs, bring Brown as the anti-hero to the underground tunnel where his buddy was murdered, which is the U.K. Wild Wild West. He battles youngins and youth, and he battles his aging, aching body.
Clint Eastwood and the Wild Wild West are actually a good point of entry to Harry Brown. If the movie were a man, it'd be the strong, silent type, with a darkened edge and mysterious past.
There was a day when getting the bad guys made for a wonderful Friday night at the movies. After all, no one cares if the bad guy dies, right? He's the perfect target for our bloodlust excitement. But over the years we've gone from the Wild Wild West and the bad guys to general bloodlust and a desire for un-targeted vengeance,
to bloodlust for bloodlust's sake, to the hip and cool younger generation who can laugh and guffaw at the torture and mutilation of others. I personally don't care if it's the bad guy being tortured or not -- this kind of social interaction cannot possibly be healthy.
The brutality in Harry Brown -- and there are moments when it is extremely brutal -- has the necessary payoff in which the bad guys get it in the end. But that's just not how life works. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. Sometimes the bad guys get away.
What Harry Brown the film does is perpetuate an age-old lie. The myth of redemptive violence goes back thousands of years in our collective consciousness. It basically says the way of the gun is best and it's clearly the only solution. It tells us natural selection puts a gun in a man's hand; that he can redeem a wrongdoing with his own form of violence, his own will to destruction. Violence, in this myth, brings justice.
But it is only a myth. It always has been. Ninety-nine percent of the time, violence begets more violence. You slap me, I slap you back, but harder. You slap me back, harder still, so I get my big brother, who gets his dad, who gets his dad's baseball bat, who...
Violent acts against another typically lead to an even more violent act.
I'm no pacifist, but I cling to a truth that tells me we are fed far too many myths that we blithely buy into, and our viewing habits are fed enough violence in the guise of redemption that are gobbled up as true without fully thinking it through.
I can get past violence in film if I believe there is a greater good, a larger schema brought to light in the story. That is violence that is justified in my mind. But in Harry Brown there's nothing but the shell of a myth that's deceived millions of people for thousands of blood-soaked years.
Harry Brown is a blasting, tense, roller coaster of a movie where crime-ridden ghettos should be ready to face the Dark Knight. But it's also an example of a horrid ideal that can scar your soul when you idly buy into it -- that violence is the best and only answer to the darkness.