Young gangs strung out on heroin, recording beatings, rape and murder on their cell phones, terrorizing entire housing estates — this is the world that “Harry Brown,” the movie by Daniel Barber and the character played by Michael Caine, lives in. It’s also a world created out of a year’s worth of horror stories from Britain’s tabloid press, and Harry Brown is just the man — and a typical tabloid reader — to sort things out.
“Harry Brown” has not so much divided critics in Britain, but more made it difficult for liberal critics to like the film without siding with right-wing tabloids like the Daily Mail. But this isn’t Britain, and “Harry Brown” should be taken with as much seriousness as any other pulpy revenge film. Hollywood has dished up some vigilante flicks in recent years — Jodie Foster in “The Brave One” may be one with a higher profile — but the zeitgeist isn’t right for it. Over in Britain, it feels like 1974 all over again.
In the film’s opening acts, Harry Brown loses his wife to illness before his only remaining friend is taken by the yoof — sorry, youth — gang that hangs about in a dingy freeway underpass. Earlier, in the pub, we’ve heard mention of Harry’s time in the marines. When asked if he killed anybody, Harry won’t even answer his friend. Maybe he’s mulling over future plans.
“Harry Brown” keeps building to its first moment when the protagonist snaps and takes out a young reprobate. When it comes, it’s almost hilarious in its short, sharp shock. Then Harry sets to work.
Meanwhile, a young detective (played by Emily Mortimer) begins to suspect that the dead bodies piling up may not be the work of drug lords but instead that kind, old man in the council estate. These sections are some of the weakest in the film. Despite Mortimer’s excellence in many other movies, her character here is all weak tea and soggy biscuits.
The film is unapologetically ludicrous, though it’s debatable how much the filmmakers are aware of this. Harry buys a gun off a local dealer who is also a pimp, pornographer, pot horticulturalist, drug dealer and drug taker. His lair is something out of “24,” as is the brief torture scene later. There’s also a third-act street riot that turns out to be just a backdrop for a showdown between Harry and the killer. The younglings are all unredeemable scumbags, and the film drips with grime.
But none of this matters while you watch, because Caine pulls out another terrific performance. Very few actors in their mid-70s could pull off the vigilante — Clint Eastwood did so in the more complex “Gran Turino” — but Caine makes you believe his violence, just as you believe his earlier grief and anger.
Director Barber knows when to let us just focus on Caine’s face, to soak up all the emotion roiling behind the eyes. Caine carries the entire film, and you can’t keep your eyes off him.
Starring: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer and Ben Drew
Rating: R for strong violence and language throughout, drug use and sexual content
Length: 103 minutes
Playing at: Metro 4