It's usually a good sign when a film instantly engages the audience with a dynamic, compelling, and (in this case) absolutely chilling opening sequence. That is unless, of course, those first frenetic moments turn out to be the pinnacle of the film's creative interest, which is unfortunately the case with Harry Brown. After getting off to a stellar start and setting up a complex, authentic, and utterly relevant scenario, Harry Brown sputters out by devolving into yet another cinematic shoot-out that relies entirely on the familiar conceit of men pointing guns at one another to stir up superficial drama.
Sir Michael Caine is officially infallible when it comes to choosing roles, but his prestige turns out to be a burden that first-time feature director Daniel Barber can't quite shoulder. Barber ostensibly got this job on the strength of his Oscar-nominated short film, The Tonto Woman, and he showcases his mastery of the short form in the film's first 30 minutes as he employs substantive details, striking visuals, diverse pacing, and intriguing editing to set up Caine's character, Harry Brown, as a woefully lonely old man whose apartment complex has been besieged by drug-dealing hooligans. At first, Brown is content to live in palpable distress, but when his best friend falls victim to a vicious attack, Brown's quiet anxiety transforms into wrath and he begins to enact his own brand of geriatric revenge on the thugs. At this point, the quiet anguish once felt by Brown is gradually transferred to those of us in the audience who were hoping for a more thoughtful examination of the myriad agonies involved when the deterioration of age forces strong, respectable people to gradually surrender their pride and personal sovereignty to the threat of adolescent nihilism and violence.
The film's young miscreants are portrayed with about as much subtlety as the villains from Batman -- they represent pure malevolence, and the script makes no real attempt to humanize them in any way. This simplified depiction in turn reduces the depth of Caine's character by removing any moral dilemma from his decision to turn vigilante. The police characters in the film are similarly shallow, settling into the requisite stereotypes of the naïve newbie with impeccable investigative instincts, the embittered and skeptical partner, and the politically ambitious chief who makes incompetent street decisions from behind his polished desk. In addition to these character issues, the last half of the film is marred by a series of ridiculous actions and impossible achievements by the principal characters. After watching a car drive off from his apartment window, with no knowledge of where it's going, the elderly Brown is somehow able to track down the vehicle on foot. Later, two hooligans, when confronted with the threat of gunfire by an assailant hidden in darkness at the end of a tunnel, inexplicably decide to slowly approach their attacker rather than sprinting for freedom at the other end. A piece of critical information about one of the characters is artificially withheld from Brown (and the audience) until just after the revelation could have prevented him from making a foolish mistake.
The premise and promise of Harry Brown are exemplary, which makes its prosaic resort to gun violence as resolution all the more disappointing. What's worse, the film's ultimate failure becomes more acute thanks to its many affinities with Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood's far superior version of aged vengeance against youthful insurrection. In that film, Eastwood's character eventually learns that attempting to combat violence with violence inevitably exacerbates the situation, rather than diffusing it. Oddly, Barber and company seem to imply the exact opposite, and their film suffers thematically and aesthetically from this questionable moral stance.