Harry Brown is an odd film. It feels like the sort of thing that would have been made in the 1970s in the wake of Dirty Harry and Death Wish, and it’s hard to believe that the fact that the main character is called Harry is a coincidence. It’s not that bad a film, but it just doesn’t feel like it belongs in the 21st Century; its message is essentially that violence can solve all our problems, which doesn’t really feel applicable any more.
Michael Caine is the title character Harry Brown, a former Royal Marine, who lives on a council estate where youth crime is becoming ever more rampant. When his best friend Len (David Bradley) is repeatedly harassed and ultimately murdered by a gang, Harry decides to take the law into his own hands and turn vigilante.
Now, Dirty Harry, for all its borderline fascist undertones, was a good film, largely because of the context in which it was made. It was the ’70s: the Summer of Love was over, America was still in Vietnam, crime was on the up, and people were, generally speaking, pretty angry and looking for quick solutions to their problems. It’s a product of the zeitgeist, and while morally dodgy, it’s enjoyable. In these (I would like to think) more enlightened times, Harry Brown feels like a dinosaur. It’s very well made: the action sequences get the job done, and Caine and Bradley are as good as they ever are, but the simple idea that guns can solve the problems of gang culture and youth crime is, frankly, a bit appalling.
It invites a lot of comparisons to Gran Torino, in that the main characters of both are former soldiers who live in crime-ridden areas and decide to do something about it. The thing is, Gran Torino was Clint Eastwood’s way of saying goodbye to Harry Callahan, acknowledging that Dirty Harry’s methods don’t work in the real world, and that violence just begets more violence.
Even superhero films have got in on the act lately, with The Dark Knight containing a remarkably apt point about how responding violently to crime can so easily lead to escalation. By the end of Harry Brown, by contrast, Michael Caine has shot all the youths and restored peace to his council estate. When compared to Gran Torino, in which Clint accepts that the law, for all its flaws, is the way to tackle crime, Harry Brown is far too simplistic a take on the same issue.
It’s certainly not without merit: Michael Caine is as excellent as he always is, and I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some cathartic pleasure to be had in watching him blow away a pair of sex traffickers early in the film. But that’s the thing: in the point Harry Brown is trying to make, it’s briefly satisfying, but when you stop to think about it, you realise that shooting society’s problems away just doesn’t, and indeed can’t, work. For all its ’70s bitterness, it didn’t even work in Dirty Harry.