Harry Brown: A Gran Torino That Drives on the Left

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Samuel Goldwyn Films

The title character of the tawdry but compelling British import Harry Brown is much like Walt Kowalski, Clint Eastwood's character in Gran Torino — an elderly gent with a military past who, following the death of his wife, develops a powerful urge to clean house. Not in the usual way of sweeping floors and doing dishes, but something much more manly: a social scrub, the kind where dirty, rotten, disrespectful young people are expunged from the neighborhood.

Unlike Walt, Harry (Michael Caine) is not a racist jerk, at least not that he lets on. His problem is with his own countrymen, and fine specimens of drug-dealing hooligans they are. These thugs — most young enough to be Harry's grandsons — loiter in and around a pedestrian tunnel near the housing estates where Harry lives. Any resident with half a brain, including Harry, scurries past as if they're having flashbacks to Irreversible, that French movie in which Monica Bellucci is raped in a similar tunnel for what seems like an eternity.

Harry knows conflict, having served the Queen in Northern Ireland long ago, but has no interest in getting involved. After his nightly tipple with his friend Leonard (David Bradley), he watches as a neighbor is brutally beaten in the parking lot below his window and then retreats behind his curtains. When Leonard complains about the thugs — who have a habit of leaving bags of flaming feces on his doorstep — Harry recommends the do-nothing course of action. Not only does Leonard not heed Harry's advice, he takes to carrying a bayonet. Sayonara, Leonard.

To be honest, I didn't care all that much about Leonard in the first place. In the film's opening sequence, shot in shaky, handheld style, director Daniel Barber captures — with a sickeningly vivid quality — a gang initiation rite involving a crack pipe and a gun that ends on the housing estate lawn, with a young mother being gunned down in front of her baby carriage. The motivation for her killing was nothing more than fun. I'd much rather Harry had gotten his nose bent out of shape about that.

But thankfully, Leonard's murder does not immediately provoke Harry into a vengeful killing spree. Gary Young's script is slightly, ever so slightly, more subtle than that. (I'm not sure Harry had much more use for the dithering Leonard than I did.) It isn't until Harry is pushed into a moment of self-defense that he realizes how easy it might be to take out the rest of the human trash. He proceeds, messily, bloodily and not particularly mercifully, from there. None of this comes as any surprise, even if Harry did once hide behind the curtains. The very nature of Caine's identity as an actor and his biography in film serves as a form of foreshadowing, just as Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry past informed us in Gran Torino. The star of Get Carter will get someone, we're sure of that, even if Caine truly does look all of his now 77 years.

And like Walt, who was coughing up blood throughout Gran Torino, Harry is already facing his own mortality. He suffers from emphysema. He has no children (there was a daughter who died in childhood). All he really stands to lose is the respect of Detective Inspector Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer), and that is of no real significance to him. Harry is the perfect elderly killing machine.

The blessing for us as filmgoers is that Caine remains a sublimely enjoyable actor to watch. He's so smooth, even when he's playing rough, that he can convince you that you're watching something artistic rather than just a prettily rendered — cinematographer Martin Ruhe makes public restrooms glow like a gritty Vogue shoot — piece of peculiar formula: The Old Coot Strikes Back. In Gran Torino, Eastwood played Walt with a wink — it was a performance built to make you laugh on some level. Caine's Harry Brown is dead serious and a lot more effective.

That said, I hope the Old Coot Strikes Back genre doesn't become a trend, and not just because I dread seeing Sylvester Stallone taking out some Jersey shore "yutes" in 10 years. Even when they're as well-acted as Harry Brown, movies like these require a certain bloodthirstiness from their audience. It's like regular housecleaning, really — fine if you're in the mood to roll up your sleeves, but mostly sort of a chore.