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05/14/2010

The old man and the siege

 
Oddly, it's the fact that "Harry Brown" is reality based that justifies 77-year-old Michael Caine in the role of a neighborhood vigilante.

Let's face it, no one would buy the two-time Academy Award winner as a fantasy fighter for justice as sundown nears on a glorious career that includes "Alfie," "Educating Rita," "The Cider House Rules" and "The Weather Man," just to name a few.

In "Harry Brown," which I prefer to call "Dirty Harry Brown," Caine sets the dour tone quickly.  And he seems acutely at home as a severely depressed London widower living alone on the second floor of a London estate.  Don't let that word "estate" fool you.  In this country, we call them "the projects."

Harry lives in a time-ravaged slum that wears its graffiti like oozing, pock-marked facial blemishes.  Teen gangs rule with such force that Harry and other law-abiding citizens can't even walk through a tunnel to get to the store.  Even taking the long way around, they fear for their safety; perhaps even their lives.

Caine's Harry is a former Marine who long ago locked his war remembrances away.  He wears the weight of the world gone by one his face and has one friend left in the world.  Harry and Leonard (David Bradley) play chess as dust settles on all the fixtures (including Harry and Leonard) in the neighborhood pub.  

Even a best friend can offend, and Leonard does when he asks Harry if he ever killed anyone in the war.

First-time feature filmmaker Daniel Barber and screenwriter Gary Young ("Shooters") tip their hands a little too obviously with the death-related pub talk.  When the final straw falls, which everyone will see coming a mile away, Harry springs (OK, moseys) into action like Clint Eastwood when the neighborhood Detroit punks start messing with this "Gran Torino."

"Harry Brown" pushes the violence envelope for sure.  But these things do happen in real life.  So when Harry goes postal, so to speak, it's not completely out of left field.  It may be difficult to believe that an actor can bring nuance to a scene of explosive force.  Caine does that here as he investigates a character overflowing with remorse as well as rage.

In addition to Bradley (Argus Filch in the "Harry Potter" franchise) as Leonard, Emily Mortimer (Rachel in "Shutter Island") scores acting points as D.I. Frampton, the police detective who shows compassion under pressure.

This is a film that delivers as a character-driven thriller about an elder.  The appeal, however, is not limited to seniors.  Anyone who appreciates Caine's long extraordinary career will relish the depth he's still able to summon in every character he explores.

Caine had a long head start on dirty Harry.  He grew up in the very slums, or estates this drama wallows in.

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