Harry Brown opens with a hair-raising sequence: On grainy handheld video, the sort you'd see on YouTube, some boisterous kids get high and rile themselves up, brandishing a gun at the camera and bragging "This is how we roll!" Then two of the punks get on a motorcycle and start circling a mother pushing a baby stroller through a park, the woman cringing as the thugs repeatedly shoot at her - until they finally strike her in the head. As she drops to the ground, mortally wounded, the teens race away and drive straight into the path of an oncoming truck.
Harry Brown hasn't even got to its opening titles, and you're already horrified. First-time director Daniel Barber and screenwriter Gary Young want to provoke the audience and immediately put us in a state of fear, so that the unlikely tale that follows feels more plausible. In an environment this violent and unpredictable, a protagonist such as Harry Brown (Michael Caine) doesn't seem that far-fetched - a former marine and widower who decides to take on the neighborhood perps who terrorize and eventually murder his best friend (David Bradley).
Harry is in his late 70s and wheezy from emphysema, but he hasn't forgotten his military training, and he has the element of surprise on his side. In one of the film's best and most unsettling sequences, he visits the den of two creepy drug dealers with the intent of purchasing guns. But when he realizes they are keeping a young woman as a sexual slave, he springs into furious action on the spot and discovers that his combat experience has not abandoned him.
Harry Brown uses an economic storytelling style that reveals a lot about its characters without spelling out everything (through a quick shot of a photograph and a glimpse of a tombstone we deduce that Harry had lost a daughter decades before). Caine plays the character at an intriguing slow-burn - you can't always anticipate what he's thinking, but you always understand his motivation - and the film gives voice to the frustrations of a police department hampered by bureaucracy and politics via a detective (Emily Mortimer) who starts to suspect Harry is moonlighting as a murderer.
Unlike many other films of its kind, in which the lesson is that violence can only beget violence, Harry Brown argues that vigilante justice is a possible solution to a world in which the bad outnumber the good. That brazenness could have rendered the picture as a broad provocation, but the sadness and despair in Harry's eyes temper the argument: Here is a hero who finds little satisfaction in getting even and whose death wish may really be aimed at himself. Harry Brown is a mean and exceedingly well-made little B-picture, but the questions it raises are far too complex to answer with a gunshot.
Harry Brown (*** out of ****) opens Friday May 14 at South Beach and Intracoastal; in Broward: Gateway.