Michael Caine Gets Cheeky, Vengeful at Harry Brown Premiere

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"Michael Caine. Is. Harry Brown." So announced a modest set of opening credits last night in Toronto, where Caine's vigilante drama premiered at the Elgin Theater. It was the last bit of breathing room the audience would receive for 95 minutes, assuming it could catch up at all from the film's shocking prologue -- director Daniel Barber's forceful submersion into the violence and urban despair faced by the film's lonely avenger. "It's not about a vigilante, really," Caine said in his introductory remarks. "Because a vigilante is someone who does something out of character as a victim -- a victim of our society who is forced to do something. So he's not really a vigilante. He's just trying to protect himself because nobody else will. And that's the message of this film and the reason I did it."

Barber himself introduced Caine onstage at the Elgin as "one of the greatest actors in the world" ("If I'd known I was one of the greatest actors in the world I'd have asked for more money," Caine replied), but the film isn't so much about chops. Harry Brown is about untying a knot of nightmares -- social, psychic, emotional -- pulled tight by the generations between the ex-Marine title character and the hoodlums who've overrun the blighted housing project where he lives. We meet Harry at 6:30 one morning, turning away in bed from the bad news on the clock radio, anticipating the day's routine of checking in with his hospitalized, dying wife and going for a bit of chess and beer at the pub with his pal Len. The latter in particular has had enough of the unchecked gang terror in the neighborhood, and no sooner is Harry grieving his wife's passing than he's discouraging the sword-packing Len from taking the degenerates on himself.

It doesn't work. Harry's reaction could kindly be characterized as extreme, but befitting of the complexity Caine alluded to in his introduction. As a decorated military man who's seen (and dwelled on) combat abroad only to have it arrive on his doorstep, defense is essentially instinctive. So, too, is his mourning of a daughter lost years before in her adolescence -- the one physical legacy he'd counted on possibly improving an England since gone to hell. The inability of the police (led by a miscast Emily Mortimer, all posture and exposition) to prosecute Len's killers finally nudges him into no-bullshit mode. It all amounts to a sort of kitchen-sink Gran Torino, yet without Clint Eastwood's messianic valedictory flourishes.

What Harry Brown has instead is a uncompromisingly bloody, pulpy genre texture more in line with Lionsgate than any of the potential distribution suitors listed here previously. And it will sell, and it will stun: Caine is fantastic, and his submission to Barber's vision of street warfare, bureaucratic ineptitude and devastated youth allows for both a point of entry and -- thank God -- escape for beleaguered viewers.

"The film also changed me inasmuch as that we went back to where I come from," Caine told us. "'The Estate' near the Elephant and Castle, as it's called. They're like what Americans call the projects -- really terrible. I went back there with a sort of normal middle-class idea: 'We've got to [end] this and send them all to prison. Kill 'em or whatever.' I used to say to the actors, 'Don't have a scene with me because you won't get anymore work in a movie. You get a scene with me, you're dead.' But when I went there I met all these young men who were terrified of you. Really terrified of you. And they treated me the same as they are because they know where I came from. And they turned my mind around on the movie while I was there: They need help, not prison. They need to be sent to a school, not to a jail where they learn to be criminals."

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Fair enough, though the film's second-half bloodbath seems to reject that principle on its face. But what a bloodbath, none more glorious than Harry's run-in with local drug dealer Stretch -- portrayed by Sean Harris with riveting, skeevy abandon, interrupting each of his junkie maxims to shoot up or smoke crack though a gun barrel. It's a bit too forced by Barber in any case, but Harry's disbelief sincerely reflects our own, doing everything we can not to pinch our noses at the stench rolling from the screen. And so commences our guided tour into civic disrepair, a tinderbox black with the combustion of class, rage and hopelessness.

Which came as something of a surprise, considering Caine's earlier, relatively upbeat reflections on coming to the project.

"I waited two years looking for a script that I really wanted to do," Caine said. "I got so used to being at home. I was beginning to take it up as a profession. And then [I read] the script, and they said, 'He's never directed a movie before.' And I said, 'That's great. What's it about?' 'It's about a vigilante.' 'Well, that sounds promising.' So I read the script, and I loved it. [...] They showed me an earlier film of Daniel's called The Tonto... Girl?"

Caine turned to Barber, who shouted a correction. "The Tonto Woman. It was a short film by Daniel; I'd never heard of him, obviously. It got nominated for an Academy Award. He never won it."

The audience quite enjoyed that, holding the two-time Oscar winner up for a few seconds. "So I thought, 'It's Help-a-Loser Week.' So I did the movie. I hope you like it. If you do, tell your friends. If you don't, keep quiet. Thank you very much." No, Mr. Caine -- thank you.



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