IMDB says... An elderly ex-serviceman and widower looks to avenge his best friend's murder by doling out his own form of justice.
The 73rd Virgin says... I'm ashamed that I missed this in theaters. That such a violent, reactionary movie could be made in 2009 England offers mild encouragement for the future of what appears, from south Texas, to be a benighted isle. I didn't detect any fashionable anti-violence, anti-vigilante shading at all. It gives a moment in the wild nihilistic opening montage to trying to capture the directionless and chaotic children of boredom and social services, but otherwise it plays it straight, or I lack a discerning eye.
Michael Caine is truly old here. He moves with a soft-mouthed, sore-footed dowdiness as the movie opens. He visits his dear and dying and unresponsive "Kath" in the elder care facility. He drinks a bit and plays chess with his best friend Len, and keeps a fair amount of his own story "locked in a box".
In the estate (midrise slummish housing project), he and his elderly neighbors avoid the subway ('Mericans would call it an underpass or a tunnel) where young men deal drugs and do the whole menace to society bit. Bumpin' bass abounds. Len gets crossways with the youths and reveals to Harry an old bayonet he has begun carrying in hopes of threatening them into leaving him alone (Ebert has a Freudian slip and misidentifies it as a gun). That ends predictably. But what should be predictable from here on has some surprises.
There are obvious comparisons to Charles Bronson's Death Wish movies (made mostly during the crime-ridden 70s) and Eastwood's Gran Torino, and I suppose Dirty Harry, but this is streets ahead of Death Wish and I would argue at least as good as "Torino" and doesn't have anyone cocking their thumb and shooting with pointed finger. What's nice is that Harry doesn't instantly go into revenge mode, nor does he do so intentionally. In fact, when he knows he should be most careful and on his guard he indavertantly gets schnockered at the local pub and flashes his wad. He kinda stumbles back into his old Marine skill set through muscle memory rather than intent.
But the real difference between this and the other wrinkled vigilante films is Caine's talent and image. Bronson will always be a stone-facedbad ass. Eastwood will too, regardless of his ill-advised attempt at tubercular country singing. But Caine has been everything. From Alfie to A Shock to the System to Blood and Wine to especially Mona Lisa to, hell, even Dressed To Kill, think of the times that his jovial face has turned most convincingly to stoney danger. Keep your Eastwoods and Bronsons and Stallones and Seagals. When Caine projects menace no one does it better, even at 76. His walking speed increases incrementally, his posture improves slightly and here we watch those suddenly predatory energized eyes dance back and forth and inventory the situation on the sidewalk below.
When Harry decides he needs a gun, he visits freakish sellers in a Dantean grow house. What's cool is that of course Harry is taken aback by the degradation and is on his guard for his life, especially as he is led into the "tall grass" as it were. But in some nifty acting and staging it becomes clear that he has not and will not lose control of the situation. As Harry observes one of them using a pistol as a hash pipe the viewer can't tell if he is more concerned at the sloppiness of the behavior, the actual drug use, or the mistreatment of a fine piece of metalworking and weaponry. And of course it has a great tagline, "you failed to maintain your weapon, son".
In another brutal scene Harry refreshes his skills picked up in Northern Ireland. Later he learns that Len's murder was filmed on the kid's phone. The look on his face as he realizes the pointlessness of the killing, the pitiful stupidity of his friend, and that he has probably captured the member least responsible for the killing, is powerful acting.
A slightly less interesting subplot develops with sad-eyed Emily Mortimer as Detective Frampton who informs Harry of Len's death. At first she is little more than a grief facilitator. Watch Caine's eyes after she mentions fingerprints on Len's bayonet.
But as the bodies begin to pile up she is the only cop to consider that perhaps something besides gang war is at work. Frampton's superior officer, BBC's favorite prick Iain Glen, is faced with the slaughter of some drug dealers and decides to do something about "gun crime" in the estate. I think I detect some genuine right-wing subversive humor.
What the police do is accidentally facilitate a riot in the estate, which brings Frampton, her side-kick sergeant, the youths, and Harry into close contact for the long and brutal and wildly bloody finale. There is a slight plot twist as well. Detective Frampton informs Harry that he has overlooked something important while dealing his vengeance, and she learns to appreciate some aspects of vigilante violence.
On second viewing it's striking how strongly this resembles American vigilante movies from the 70s. Including the concluding voice over through speakers echoing across a vacant lot that actually uses the words "silent majority". It almost seems like a sendup, but I'm not sure.
From Dirty Harry down to Death Wish all the way down to The Exterminator there was an explicit paranoid slant that police leadership are useless bureaucrats, that there is a kind of monolithic state urge to keep crime and violence under wraps while never actually dispensing justice, and that thugs have a preference for kinky plebophilic sex. Although those movies look dated now, they reflected the genuine frustration of the "silent majority" of the time and perhaps this movie reflects the Brits' frustration now. But those movies were all hits. This really wasn't.
There are complaints on Netflix that this starts slowly. If it was just about a lonely old guy you wouldn't notice the slow start or you wouldn't see the movie. Since it eventually turns in to a splatterfest, the opening seems slow, but I think that's how it should be. It takes a long time for Harry to grow a chip on his shoulder. The plot is a bit threadbare in spots, I suppose, but this is nice work. I was completely engaged.