As the opening frames of Harry Brown began to play out, I was a bit puzzled. So much had been said about Michael Caine's titular performance that when there was no sign of him in the opening scene, I almost thought I was in the wrong movie. Instead, the film opens up with a shaky handheld shot of a drugged-up gang racing through the afternoon streets of South London. A little while in, they comes across a mother walking her daughter in the park. They shoot her on the spot. In their attempts to flee the scene, the group gets run over by a truck. If audiences were appalled by the violence of Kick-Ass, wait until they get a load of this film.

We are subsequently introduced to Harry Brown (Caine), an eighty-something war veteran who wakes up to visit his ailing wife in the hospital. When she passes soon later, the only person he has left is his chess buddy Leonard (David Bradley). They always play at Sid's (Liam Cunningham) bar. Their conversations include memories of Harry's wife, the occasional war question, and the increasing criminal activity in their town. In fact, a drug deal occurs right inside the bar, and Sid does not do a thing. Leonard becomes sickened because of this.

Harry, unable to control his friend any longer, wakes up to the knocking of officers Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles) to find out that Leonard has been murdered after his failed attempt to attack the gang. It is after the deaths of Leonard and his wife that Harry is at his most vulnerable, and Caine's sympathetic portrayal early on in the film leads us to believe that his emotional arc will be the focus of the film's story. It turns out to be something entirely different.

The main suspect of Leonard's murder is the repulsive gang leader Noel Winters (Ben Drew). There is an extended interrogation sequence in which Frampton and Hicock repeatedly fail at trying to break Winters and his thugs. The federal authorities cannot do anything to stop the area's outbreak of violence.

Harry, a skilled ex-Marine and a man with hardly any reason to live, vows to do the job that the law cannot do. His first task is to buy a gun, so he follows one of Winters' gang members to the home of Stretch (Sean Harris), a heroin-addicted arms and marijuana dealer. It is safe to say that this meeting does not go according to plan and it is, more or less, the birthing place of Harry's spree of vigilantism. 

The film's title and the emotional content of the first act might lead one to think that Harry Brown is a character study; try to ignore this. Listen to what the opening scene is telling the audience: this film is about violence, and Harry is nothing more than a man in the middle of that violence. By the time Harry has committed his first murder, the film takes a drastic turn towards the more sinister. The aforementioned arms-dealing scene is an utterly abhorrent sequence, made all the worse by the fact that it runs for upwards of ten minutes. It is also, however, gripping in every way.

Daniel Barber, who was Oscar-nominated for Best Short Film back in 2008, makes his feature debut here, and the film is as gritty as they come. Barber works with cinematographer Martin Ruhe to create an atmosphere of uncompromising realism. The film is about the escalation of violence, and Barber does not shy away one bit from presenting one of the most violent films in quite some time. Not only is the content graphic, but the context Barber creates is painfully believable. I would like to think that police officers could never be so helpless, but Barber convinced me otherwise.

As a piece of storytelling, Harry Brown is underwhelming. But Caine's central performance, which ranges from softhearted to vicious, is an impressive one, and probably his best work in years. And in his debut, Barber shows impressive command. He has the ability to take a subject that seemed so cartoonish (if entertaining) in Taken, and present it in shockingly realistic fashion. I have a lot of respect for Harry Brown, but I'm not sure it is something I would want to experience again.

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