Though Michael Caine is his usual watchable self as the title character in Harry Brown, a 2009 revenge drama about a 77-year-old pensioner who lives in a London housing estate overrun by teenage brutes, what you might take away from the film is its abject filth. The drug dealing villains of the piece appear to have been dipped in feces prior to their scenes, and though the message wants to be that drugs have turned our cities into shooting galleries, the deeper theme appears to be that good people are clean-cut and presentable, while the baddies are ugly and covered in scum. When his best friend is killed trying to defend himself from some of the locals thugs, Harry swings into action, visiting an underground drug den to buy some weaponry, sort of like good ol’ Travis Bickle meeting with his gun dealer in Taxi Driver. Harry encounters a pair of scary misfits who have plied their trade in the shadows for so long that they’ve turned into Golem-like creatures with nearly undecipherable cockney accents, a neat trick since nearly everyone in the movie sounds like they’re talking with their mouths full of mashed potatoes. It’s in this fetid criminal lair that Harry finds, to his glee, that the killing instinct honed during his time as a marine in Northern Ireland is still sound, and that he still has the poise to stand over a bleeding victim and mock him for not keeping his gun clean.
And people don’t just die in Harry Brown. They wallow in their own gore for a while, emitting strange, bubbling sounds, their final words usually being a four-letter curse word favored among the ignorant everywhere. And give the Brits credit – they can curse better than anybody, including Italian-Americans, African-Americans, and Southern rednecks. True, Americans put plenty of steam into their vulgarities, but the Brits make it all sound so damned musical, even when it emits from the lowest depths of poverty and anguish. But not even the joys of hearing British profanities can lift this movie above its station, for at heart it’s merely another gun-wielding melodrama where a respectable citizen is mad as hell and can’t take it anymore, and viewers will find themselves quietly cheering, like Pavlovian dogs conditioned to wet themselves over violence, when the old geezer puts those young hoods in their place.
The movie received some nice press when it first came out in 2010, with many critics comparing it to Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. “We are all so desperately weary of CGI that replaces drama,” wrote Roger Ebert. “With movies like this, humans creep back into crime stories.” Manohla Dargis at The NY Times was less enthused, but claimed that Caine matched Charles Bronson’s old vigilante roles “move for move in the annals of big, bad, bloody, disreputable entertainment.” For the most part, reviews were positive because Caine is the true definition of a movie star, and can even perk up an arthouse potboiler like Harry Brown. That he played Harry as a wheezing old man, suffering from emphysema and occasionally collapsing in the middle of a shootout, gave the rather exploitative and sensationalistic material its touch of reality. It wasn't the snarling villains who made the film seem earthy, it was Caine alone in his apartment, buttering his toast.
“This strata of society exists in my country,” Caine said upon the release of Harry Brown, describing the movie as “a wakeup call.” Caine also tried to sell the film as one that didn’t celebrate violence, which is a bit like saying Clockwork Orange doesn’t celebrate rape. From the opening scene of Harry Brown, where a mother is randomly killed in front of her child, we’re hit with a sort of full-frontal viciousness, and while it’s not the computer game mayhem of a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, it’s every bit as numbing. And the fact that a female investigator played by Emily Mortimer suspects Harry has killed several drug dealers but doesn’t blow his cover tells us all we need to know about the movie’s politics.
First time director Daniel Barber likes to splash around in the muck of depravity, and with help from cinematographer Martin Ruhe (shooting in Dolby Digital), he makes Harry Brown’s section of London - most of the film was shot in Walworth - look bleak and grey, like an old metal railing that has been rained on for decades. There’s a stiff, cell-like feel to most of the scenes, as if the characters are all living in shoeboxes and have never seen daylight. The climactic battle between the neighborhood punks and the police feels aptly apocalyptic, with homemade petrol bombs flying through the air, while sick old Harry tries to outlast the madness drizzling down all around him.
All ends well for Harry, but he’s such a fragile bloke that I almost wished he had someone like Zoe Bell in his corner to provide some backup. Bell’s first claim to fame was that she served as Uma Thurman’s stunt double in the Kill Bill movies, as well as Lucy Lawless’ double in television’s Xena: Warrior Princess. She has since tried to carve her own niche as an action star. The same year Harry Brown was made, she appeared as the assassin Eve in Paul Etheredge’s Angel of Death. The movie isn’t much more than a Tarantino-flavored knock off with lots of fighting and shooting, and buckets of unimaginative dialog by screenwriter Ed Brubaker. With a background writing comics for DC and Marvel, Brubaker’s idea of how characters talk goes something like this: “Fuck you.” “No, fuck you!” and so on. If the Brits of Harry Brown make cursing into a vile symphony, the cast of Angel of Death sound like summer stock actors from Bridgeport doing a futile imitation of Goodfellas. But Bell makes the movie palatable. Like Caine, she has a movie star quality. I just wish she could find better projects.
Angel of Death was originally a 10-part episodic series on Crackle, where it’s playing now in its entirety. Bell plays an assassin who works for a crime family. After being stabbed in the skull during a fight, she suffers some after-effects, such as falling to the ground and frothing at the mouth, and worst of all, she’s grown shy about killing, haunted by visions of past victims. That’s bad news for someone in her business. The comic book storyline is silly and adolescent, just an excuse to string together a dozen or so scenes where Bell shows off her fighting skills. What makes Bell compelling is that she never plays Eve as a superwoman, and takes as many punches as she gives out.
Bell has the kind of lazy sexiness that reminds me of vintage Ellen Barkin, but since she’s one of the few actresses who looks comfortable fighting, she’s stuck in these rough and tumble parts. Of course, Bell looks convincing in everything she does – she even dials a phone with nothing less than absolute authority – while the rest of the Angel of Death cast can’t even fake smoking a cigarette. Steve McQueen biographers have often noted that one of the keys to McQueen’s success was his ability to look comfortable at anything from handling a rifle to jumping a motorcycle. Zoe Bell has this same kind of comfort level and authority. For instance, she looks undeniably confident when handling a pistol, whereas most actresses hold guns as if they’re fresh off the firearms safety course.
The problem is that Bell's action roles are one dimensional. I’ve seen her in other films and in interviews where she shows cleverness and humor. The director who can meld Bell’s funny side with her ability to choke a guy will have a winner.
Both films are now playing on Crackle...