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Cinema Signal: Go! Caine pulls a Clint Eastwood.

Sir Michael Caine:
The Biography
by William Hall
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "Harry Brown"

The institution of acting known as Michael Caine has two lives -- in terms of the kinds of projects he has done to add up to a total of 144 movies (and counting). There are the big-projected studio and indie films (Batman Begins," "The Dark Knight") and the ones he does with his home boys of a much more modest scale such as "Noises Off," "Last Orders" and this one. These are characterized as made in and for the British Isles on shoestring budgets with casts that are, for the most part, unknown abroad. In the U.S., that is.

He's good in all of them. But in these small scale projects he seems to be improving with age. And age is very much to the point in this revenge drama. Michael Caine plays age extremely well.

As the title character, the old ex-marine lives in an apartment that's like a cell of a hive on architectural steroids. In the states we call such masses of brick and concrete "the projects." They put a lot of disparate people in close contact. From a social standpoint, that could have some benefits. But, when sociopathic teenage sloths breed into a tumorous growth of criminal gangs who harass the decent folks, it can be terrible bad.

One of the two things that occupy Harry Brown's (Caine) day is his trek to the hospital to be beside the bed of his seriously ailing wife and lifelong companion. To get there, he walks. A habit he's formed is to pause near the entrance of an underground tunnel that would shorten his trek were he able to use it. But it's a hangout for the unruly gangs and he knows better than to try to get through that lot. So, he takes the longer route.

His other activity, which occupyies his evenings, is playing chess with his buddy Leonard Attwell (David Bradley) at the local bar. Leonard's been showing increasing signs of desperation over the harrassment he's been receiving from wayward teenagers in the community.

About the time Harry's wife dies and he goes into mourning, Leonard shows him a bayonet that he swears to use as his protection against the gang. The determination on his face upsets Harry, who rightly sees it as a suicide mission, but he's got too much on his plate at the moment to intervene.

There's a beautiful shot in the film at this time of a memorial convoy of black Mercedes driving through a cemetary. Could this be for Harry's wife? As the convoy gets broadside to the camera, the pan stops and lets the cars exit from frame. This reveals, on the other side of the road, two people at a gravesite: Harry, and a priest saying last rights. Class distinctions as well as the realities of a pensioner's options are made clear without a word.

As one might predict, Leonard turns up dead, giving Harry two graves to visit. It also gives him a mission.

When Deputy Inspector Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer, "Lars and the Real Girl") comes to visit Harry with her sergeant Terry Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles) it's to query him on what he may know about his friend's death. She's impressed with the old codger even if he virtually throws her out at the end. But new corpses bring her back, this time to take note of a photo of Harry in uniform with a chest full of medals. We know that she suspects Harry of some complicity in the termination of bad guys.

The scene in which Harry visits a pair of gun dealer/pot growers tells us all we need to know about the elderly gentleman's physical and mental prowess. It is also one of the most demonic depictions of lunatic derangement I've seen in a long time. It goes well beyond Ben Foster's disturbing performance as the depraved Jake Mazursky in "Alpha Dog."

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Revenge is a tasteful treat and, in the right kind of film, a source of delicious satisfaction. Give us an old man who would never be expected to be the neighborhood vigilante and the sweetness comes with the added benefits of humor and irony. Pile onto that Caine's superb way with understatement, and you have a movie worth seeing--for more reasons than any local low-budgeter he's done yet. The man is aging but growing better all the time.

One may find the story construction simplistic and predictable. That's all right. When the simple and the predictible is done with this much talent, and keeps you in a state of tension and admiration for its entire length, those characteristics become attributes--even if it is a rip off (a variant? An homage? An emulation?) of "Gran Torino." If Caine had to prove he's got everything Clint Eastwood has, I say, "give him room." You do not want to miss "Harry Brown."

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Michael Caine is Harry Brown
You mess with this ex-marine at your own peril.

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