This was out last year and I had mild interest in seeing it, especially as it was released soon after I first watched Get Carter, considered one of, if not the, greatest British film of all time. Since this one also stars Michael Caine and is also about him as vigilante, it shares a certain resonance with the earlier film, one that I has hoped would be more potent and rewarding. As it is, well, if you've never seen Get Carter, I advise you to stop reading this immediately and go get it right now. If you have seen it... well, you can still stop reading.
We open with some footage taken on a motorcycle as some hooligan [it is so satisfying to at least be able to use "hooligan" in the true sense of the word] circles a woman pushing a stroller. He randomly shoots to terrify her, but one of the shots hits her. The guy on the bike flees, but is soon hit by a truck. Then we have the somber, and teeny-tiny, credits.
When we return we meet Caine as the title figure, in some shots that prominently place an empty pillow or empty breakfast chair in our view, telling us that he misses his wife. He walks--carefully avoiding the dark pedestrian tunnel we know must be the hangout of the local thugs--to see her in the hospital. A few days later she dies. Harry also has his friend Len, who also lives in their housing project, known as "The Estate." Len is appalled that local youth deal drugs openly in the pub. We find out that Harry was an ex-marine, but has "locked all that stuff away." At night, Harry sees thugs pounding on a car outside, smashing its windows, and beating the owner when he comes out to protest. The next day Len, who is harassed by the kids and says he is "scared all the time," shows Harry a boyonet, and says he's going to attack the youths. By the day after that, Len has been killed.
Harry is devastated--he has no one left. We introduce Emily Mortimer as Inspector Alice Frampton, who rounds up the main hooligan, Lou, and others. I must say, around this time, 40 minutes in, I was thinking "This movie is pretty dreary." That night, Harry is stumbling drunk at a bar and a local junkie, introduced earlier, sees his wad of cash. Attempting to mug him with a knife, Harry handily turns the knife on the thug and kills him. He goes home, washes up, and feels bad, but the impulse for revenge is now there.
SPOILERS > > >
Seemingly the next night, Harry goes to this junkie's house and asks to buy a gun. He is brought into this nasty drug den, past a forest of marijuana, where a drugged-up girl lies on a couch. It goes on for a while and is reasonably tense, but eventually Harry kills the dealers and saves the girl. His speech to the dying dealer is perhaps the most satisfying moment in the film, as it is one of the few times the film lets us simply get off on the implicit sadism in such a situation.
Okay, I'm not going to go into detail about the rest of the film, but I will say that at a certain point midway through I thought "I bet there is going to be one large final confrontation, which is soon going to resolve to a smaller, more intimate confrontation with just the main characters," and that is exactly what happened. Because this movie isn't that interested in coloring outside the lines. If you thought the old speech about "Where does it end?" will rear its ugly head, well, we wouldn't want to disappoint. At the very end, after a few bad apples have their brains blown out, we learn that crime on the estate is down 30%, and we see kids playing safely out in the common areas [life has been restored!] and now Harry feels safe walking through the pedestrian underpass. Vigiliantism--it works!
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It was fine, well-made and well acted, and yet just somehow so resolutely ho-hum. There just isn't one single surprising element to it. It is totally by the book.
The other thing is that, in contrast to famous vigilate movies like Dirty Harry or Death Wish, this movie is too hand-wringingly sensitive to really let us get behind its hero and enjoy the vicarious righteous sadism of blowing these useless thugs away. Yes it just reflects the times, in which we need to CONSIDER ALL SIDES and think about the many, many complicated social and economic issues involved, and that's great, but it is also the enemy of compelling thrillers. Both Dirty Harry and Death Wish were notable for flattening the issues and presenting only one side of the issue, but that's what made them really thrilling. This is like the NPR of vigiliante films.
While I like that the film sets up the deep sadness of Harry's character, it also makes the whole thing quite a bummer and deadens the mood. This movie tries to pull a bit of a Gran Torino in that we're supposed to believe that Harry has nothing to live for and thus nothing to lose, but in Gran Torino Eastwood's character came to life throughout the course of the film and began fighting to protect things he cared about. I know, they're different movies, but somehow I just didn't find Harry's sadness and anger compelling enough. Losing his wife and friend and having nothing just isn't the same as outrage that a precious way of life is dying, and an urgent need to protect that. At the same time, if the film wanted to be a little more complicated, it would have benefited from more on Lou [the main thug, remember?] and his background, how he came to be this way. It could be effective to sympathize with Lou, then feel very complicated and conflicted when he gets his comeuppance. It would have made the film stronger. As it is, it's just somehow weak tea.
But seriously, though--watch Get Carter.
I don't really think there's any reason to.