Harry BrownGreen lightLast year Clint Eastwood fashioned an entire film around the concept of a cranky old codger telling young punks to keep the hell offa his lawn. Unfazed by the prospect of death, which in any event couldn’t be too far away, Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) in Gran Torino was not your average tea and biscuit pensioner. He was cranky and bad ass, a force to be reckoned with.

Now Michael Caine ups the ante in Harry Brown, the blood-splotched story of a lonely old widower who decides the yoof of today need to be taught a lesson or two in manners (read: expunged from the face of the earth).

These two violent stories of morally righteous over-the-hill heroes present the emergence of a curious new genre: the geriatric revenge movie.

These old timers may have breathing issues, weak hearts, poor eyesight, brittle bones and a fondness for remembering the good ol’ days but man, they don’t take no crap – so if da homeboyz in da hood start mouthing off, well, good luck to them.

Eastwood and Caine’s gimme-no-guff performances have made the geriatric revenge movie a bit of a gentleman’s club. The emergence of the genre will be complete once grandma gets in on the action.

Harry Brown (Caine) lives in a community estate flat in a rough lower class neighbourhood. He’s a widower and an ex-serviceman and whittles away his time playing chess and sipping beers with his mate Leonard (David Bradley). Their community is overrun by violent, drug addicted youth. Callow punks do drug deals in broad daylight; they harass families and strangers; they ain’t afraid of the law and they have no respect for their elders.

Leonard is continually mocked and taunted. Understandably, the ol’ flaming-poo-on-your-doorstop chestnut doesn’t exactly give him the giggles. But when Leonard decides to take a stand he’s viciously murdered by young criminals. At about this point savvy audiences will realise that Harry Brown is not a retirement village comedy in the same vein as Grumpy Old Men, though it certainly emphasises the “grumpy” bit.

Harry decides to take the law into his own hands. He acquires a gun and before you can say “gee whiz Get Carter looks pretty old these days” he puts it to use. Of course he’s also afflicted by the curses of age – he has emphysema and he’s weak and slow, which means that as an action hero he’s not exactly from the same cloth as the underwear-on-the-outside-plus-bright-coloured-stockings ilk.

Michael Caine is a charismatic actor who carries scenes with a sense of quiet dignity. He’s also a subtle performer who knows how to carefully texture characters. There are moments in Harry Brown that feel too dramatically convenient, too contrived, but you never doubt his performance. It’s the most authentic part of the film, it’s wrinkly raison d’être.

Like a lot of revenge thrillers, or films that condone some forms violence while simultaneously condemning others, the sense of morality at the heart of Harry Brown is deeply conflicted. Director Daniel Barber dabbles in doublethink; he understands that the violence his protagonist advocates is not a feasible solution morally or practically to countering other forms of violence depicted in the film but insists on having it both ways.

Harry Brown is let down by grossly simplistic depictions of drug users and criminals. Virtually every character who takes drugs or is in some way connected to the scene are violent, sociopathic people, easy to instantly loathe, and Barber clearly recommends we do so. There is a clearly delineated line between “good” and “bad.” Reality, of course, is not that simple. However, in the context of the story’s dramatics you can to some extent forgive such simplifications. It’s essential that the audience remain on Harry’s side; essential that his actions are seen as the results of brazen provocations.

That said, there is moral emptiness in Harry Brown that is quite startling. Shot in bleak, muted colours, the film is conscious of its own sordidness, but the plot moves with precise rhythm and the story remains interesting throughout. As a character Harry Brown will linger long in the memory, even if Harry’s memory – just like Walt Kowalski’s – probably ain’t what it used to be.

Harry Brown’s Australian theatrical release date: May 20, 2009.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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