13 December 2009
HARRY BROWN (Dir. Daniel Barber, 2009, UK) - Caine's Reverence
Touted as Michael Caine's last leading role, 'Harry Brown' was released a few weeks back with critics making comparisons with Eastwood's 'Gran Torino' which also saw an aging film star taking up the socially dubious yet morally intriguing role of the crusading vigilante. Produced by Matthew Vaughn who was responsible for the instantly forgettable British urban crime film 'Layer Cake' which starred Daniel Craig post James Bond phase, 'Harry Brown' follows in the vein of a series of sensationalist urban youth films. This paradigm includes 'Adulthood', 'Eden Lake' and 'Donkey Punch', films that offer variations on British youth culture but seem to be fascinated with the prescient ideological centrality of feral youth. Primarily a star vehicle for Michael Caine, the film reworks the enduring screen image of Jack Carter by preying upon our nostalgia for iconic British anti-heroes. This is director Daniel Barber's second film and though it is competently directed it is a film that rests largely on the shoulders of Michael Caine who remains a compelling actor to watch and one of the last British icons. Towards the end of the eighties, Caine's career entered what would become his most unproductive and unmemorable period. Though it is problematic for most mainstream British actors with an international profile to maintain consistency, Caine was fortunate enough in the mid nineties to get his career back and track and thus begin a late renaissance in what has now become a prolific and rich acting career. His credibility as a performer and a box office draw was restored with supporting roles in films like 'Blood and Wine', 'The Cider House Rules' and 'Little Voice'. 'The Quiet American' in 2002 reiterated Caine's enduring screen presence and reminded audiences and critics alike of his understated performance style.
With 'Harry Brown' Caine reconstructs the viciousness of Jack Carter in the context of a London housing estate that pits him against the apathy of gang culture. Tabloid trash might be one way of describing the sensationalist nature of Barber's film, stylising the aesthetics of social realism so not to be accused of abandoning a British linage. The film attempts to use the guise of the routine revenge thriller to superficially address quite important social ills plaguing the urban ghettos of inner city London but the narrative cannot but help refashion sequences from a range of influential vigilante films including 'Taxi Driver'. As a vigilante revenge thriller the film seems to work quite well and whilst Emily Mortimer looks out of place, the dependable Liam Cunningham shows up in somewhat of a predictable role. Films like 'New Moon' and 'The Hangover' continue to point to a trend that indicates how expendable stars are becoming to box office commercial success and whilst critic proof films like '2012' give credence to the diminishing role of star power in the face of high concept cinema, a film like 'Harry Brown' confirms that the star vehicle as a commercial cinematic ideal is unlikely to face extinction for years to come. Today's reality is that very few contemporary stars have the on screen presence and charisma often associated with the likes of Michael Caine, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman. Caine is unpretentious as they come and for that alone he should be revered.