Michael Caine on Harry Brown, Paycheck Roles and Why the British Do Dystopia Best
The grim, almost impossibly violent Harry Brown will no doubt draw endless comparisons to Dirty Harry and other risible exemplars of do-it-yourself crimefighting. But beyond the grit of the British projects where lawless hell descends, the film truly thrives in the quiet dignity afforded by leading man Michael Caine. Even as his ex-Marine title character goes to war against the subculture of hoodlums, addicts, dealers and thieves, the 77-year-old acting legend reinforces the bloodshed with purpose and gravitas. Clearly there's a little something more going on here than just target practice; Brown's mission to restore order is perhaps secondary only to Caine's own to effect change.
Nevertheless, at a glance it's difficult to reconcile the dramatic idea of mowing down an army of gangsters with the actor's personal ambition to see them rehabilitated. He explained the paradox -- among other things, including why Jaws: The Revenge is nothing to be ashamed of -- to Movieline.
First things first: I can't believe you had to follow Courtney Love on The Late Show the other night.
Yeah, I didn't know! I had no idea.
Such injustice. Did you have any encounters with her?
I never saw her. I never saw anybody. I watched her on television. I found it very interesting to watch her talking about being... straight, is it? Or cured?
Rehabbed, I guess.
Rehabbed, yeah. I found it very interesting. And the story about going topless on the desk... I never saw that. She was obviously stoned out of her mind, but she wasn't stoned last night. I thought she was very nice and very sympathetic. I liked her. But I didn't meet her in real life.
I was blown away that they showed the blinking clip from Acting on Film. I seriously used to rent that tape like it was a summer blockbuster. They still teach it in film schools. What's been your relationship with it over the years?
Well, there was a lady in the BBC who did this thing called Master Class. It would be a ballet dancer, an opera singer, a theater producer, a movie director, whatever. She always kept after me -- she kept after me for two years -- to do something on movie acting. And I said, "I can't tell anybody how to do movie acting." I know a bit about how to do it myself, but actually telling someone what to do is very different. And I said, "I don't know anything to tell you to tell anybody." And she said, "Yes you do." And in the end she got on my nerves enough so that that I did it to get rid of her. And what she did was kind of clever, because she got three actors who were all doing plays that I had done. They were all on tour at that time; they were Alfie, Sleuth and Educating Rita. So we took their theatrical performances and turned them into a movie performance. That was the basis of it.
But the most famous thing that came out of it was the eyes and the blinking. What they say when they write about it is that you mustn't blink, but it's not that you mustn't blink. If you want to be strong, you mustn't blink. If you want to be weak, you can blink all you like. Or if you want to be funny; Hugh Grant made a whole funny career out blinking with every word.
So the sense I got from Harry Brown is that it's a social commentary, but--
It is. That's what it is.
What exactly is it a commentary about?
It was a wake-up call, because it was happening -- and I knew it was happening long before I read the script -- and no one was doing anything about this underclass that's being left to rot. Socialists were giving them benefits, and there were 300,000 heroin and crack addicts who were on benefits, too. And then the gang kids, they didn't need any benefits; they were selling drugs and stealing stuff. So this whole underclass had been left to rot. It always worried me because I come from that class. I was a gang member when I was young, but these gangs make us look like Mary Poppins, for Christ's sake. Our drugs were alcohol, and our weapons were our fists. We were always getting broken noses or a couple of teeth knocked out or something. But this drugs, guns and knives is lethal. It's perfectly safe to walk the streets, unless you go there. Then you're in trouble.
We do have a problem there with the youngsters, and I keep reading statistics in the newspapers that we have the most drug abuse in the European Union. Or the most violence and drunkenness in the European Union. You look at that and you're like, "What the f*ck is going on?" The most illegitimate births, the most abortions. You get this picture of this youth that's gone completely wrong. But that's just one section that's been left to rot in a society where the class system is broken down. This is the last vestige of that.
But Harry's response is to fight fire with fire. It's not necessarily the most progressive solution, is it?
No. But the idea of that was, "If you don't do something, then this is what innocent people will do." A reporter said to me yesterday, "Have you ever seen this with a proper audience?" I said, "No." He said, "When you kill those people, they all cheered." And I said, "That's exactly what I'm talking about. That's how far it's gone." You've got to do something, because people are cheering the killing.
I guess it wouldn't be much of a movie if Harry held a gang summit with tea and biscuits.
We're making a movie about the one guy who did something. We're not making a movie about the load of people who didn't do anything. It would be very boring if the people sat indoors and didn't go outside because they were frightened.
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