An overheated failure. 

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A revered leading man of the 1970s and '80s, Michael Caine has been at his best this decade in sharp supporting turns in films such as The Prestige and Children of Men. But he gets perhaps his juiciest leading role in years here, as the title character in British vigilante drama Harry Brown.

Opening with a stomach-turning crime captured on home video by an accomplice, Harry Brown is a brutish, sensationalized revenge thriller that sends its upright protagonist into an underworld of violence, sex, and drugs so tawdry and revolting that you might think Paul Schrader conceived it. (Schrader penned similar scenarios in Taxi Driver and Hardcore.)

Already coping with the loss of his wife, retiree Brown looks out with dismay from his upper-floor window on an estate — a British term for a public housing project — in shambles, a crime-ridden, graffiti-pocked dystopia overrun by young hooligans. It's gotten so bad that a good friend, who confesses his fears to Harry, has taken to carrying a dagger with him for protection — a weapon turned on him by murderous attackers.

But before the friend dies, he inquires about Harry's military past. "Did you kill anyone?" the friend asks Harry, who demures. "I've locked all that stuff away," Harry says. "All these years, I've stuck with it."

This positions Harry as a reluctant man of action, a British twist on a character that might have been played by Clint Eastwood (the Gran Torino connection is unavoidable) or John Wayne.

Caine is up to creating this kind of character, but the movie — from director Daniel Barber and screenwriter Gary Young — isn't. Harry Brown aspires to something more high-minded but is really akin to a British Death Wish. Barber's staging is over-heated: When Harry wants to buy a gun, he ends up in a squalid flat peopled by strung-out tattooed caricatures trafficking in heroin, porn, and wasted women. The film climaxes with a ludicrous street riot and a movie-conspiracy showdown. These embellishments serve mainly to diminish moral questions when Harry turns "dirty" in pursuit of vigilante justice.

Caine rises above his setting. He emerges unblemished but can't bring the movie with him. Honestly, Harry Brown works best if you take it less seriously than it takes itself. Choose to see it as an Alfred the Butler origin story, and its vigilante impulse dovetails with Caine's role in the current Batman series in more interesting — and unintentionally comic — ways.

Opens Friday, May 21st

Studio on the Square

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