Gran Torino was a politically correct film, once unbelievable from Eastwood, by comparison with Harry Brown. The British film won't necessarily strike an American observer as politically incorrect, since race doesn't factor into Harry's conflict and we're invited to sympathize with a female police detective facing sexism in the ranks. What makes it so, depending on your own point of view, is its purely reactionary quality, something that more sympathetic viewers might call unflinching realism. I find it reactionary (a descriptive rather than moral judgment) because of its unmitigated indictment of English youth. There's no good kid in the estates for Harry to befriend or protect, no one of the teen generation or slightly older who might give audiences cause for hope. Barber's movie is dystopian; it's set in the present, but it may as well be the time of Mad Max. If the youth of Britain have any chance, Harry Brown suggests, it'll only be as long as old men like Harry put the fear of death into them.
I draw comparisons because Harry Brown and Gran Torino are essentially similar. They're star vehicles for enduring action icons who are allowed, while playing old, sick men, to kick punks' asses. Caine's movie arguably deals with the main character's age and illness more realistically than Eastwood's. Clint coughs up blood every so often, then goes about his business punching out punks, while Caine succumbs to emphysema in mid-chase and has to be hospitalized. Harry is no septuagenarian superman; he's not as fast as the punks, prevailing over them mainly because they're incompetent even at violence compared with a knowledgeable antagonist. There are hints that Harry was more of a specialist in brutality in his Marine days than Eastwood's character was during the Korean War, making Harry's spree arguably more plausible than Eastwood's occasional non-lethal antics. The tension between Harry's skills and his age helps keep Harry Brown interesting. "What's he capable of?" is a legitimate question throughout in more than one sense: what's Harry capable of physically and morally? The moral tension, unfortunately, is understressed. Barber and writer Gary Young have so persuasively portrayed the estate youth as monsters that there seems little point in questioning whether Harry hasn't become a monster himself.
I'm ambivalent about vigilante movies. They can be entertaining as hell or Harry Brown, but I don't know if I can accept an "only a movie" argument in defense of their implicit advocacy of people taking law into their own hands. Given the end results in Barber's film, who could be blamed for thinking the message to be, "Go and do likewise." When a vigilante character gets away with it all, however implausibly, it seems like the cheapest form of audience gratification. Vigilante films are fantasies, however, and I suppose audiences can be trusted to draw distinctions between what's allowed on screen and in society. When a vigilante film is a star vehicle like Harry Brown, that might discourage viewers from thinking that vigilantism is something they can do. Plenty of able-bodied people probably leave this film convinced that Michael Caine could kick their asses in real life, or at least kill them with little trouble. Someone fantasizing about emulating Harry Brown might be stopped short by the realization that he isn't Michael Caine. Still, however modest the vigilante fantasy actually is, it probably still isn't healthy for society, and speaking from my own aesthetic perspective, I prefer more pessimistic movies, or at least those where the vigilante might get the revenge he or she is looking for, but pays for it as well.
Above, Harry Brown watches crime from a safe distance. Below, technology reduces the distance across time and space between Harry and his friend's final moments.
By that standard, Harry Brown can't fully satisfy me, but I like a lot of the parts. Barber has an eye for dismal cityscapes and a taste for apocalypse in miniature. He's also effective in portraying Harry's accelerated isolation, and the collection of deleted scenes on the DVD show a sharp editorial instinct for doing more with less. Caine milks the title role for all its pathos and all its comic-book crowd-pleasing quality, and works that tension between prowess and infirmity very effectively. In Emily Mortimer's detective he has a regrettably inadequate antagonist. She plays the character convincingly but it just feels like the wrong character for this story. It needs a detective who'll challenge Harry more forcefully, but that may just be me desiring a more ambiguous movie again. The gang punks are barely differentiated little ogres, but I'll say for the young men playing them that they look and sound like they were just plucked from the estates. Harry Brown is an urban nightmare of which its protagonist is a part. The best way to look at it, if not necessarily the way the creators want, is to see Harry as a symptom, not a cure, or as still a victim despite his revenge.