Today, we wish a happy 89th birthday to Michael Caine!
For longer than I’ve been alive, Michael Caine has been a star. He’s one of the last surviving icons of the British cultural invasion of the 1960s, a venerable actor who went from being Alfie to being Carter to being Scrooge to being Alfred Pennywise without missing a step. In many ways, he was the cockney Jack Nicholson, a working class actor with his own very identifiable style who still managed to play a wide variety of different characters. Like Nicholson, there have been frequent reports that Caine has retired from acting and, if anyone has earned the right to enjoy their retirement, it’s Michael Caine. Caine himself has said that he doesn’t ever see himself fully retiring from acting and he’s already proven that, even in his twilight years, he’s still as capable of giving a good performance as he was when he first started acting.
Take Harry Brown, for example.
Michael Caine was 76 when he played the title role in this violent British thriller. Harry is a former Royal Marine who, now elderly and suffering from emphysema, lives on a London council estate that has been taken over by a gang of violent drug dealers. The nearby underpass is so dangerous that even Harry is scared to walk under it. Because Harry has to take an alternate route to the hospital to avoid all of the gangs, his wife dies without Harry being at her side. When his only friend is then killed while trying to stand up to the dealers, Harry snaps. Harry starts tracking down and killing the dealers and the gang members who have made retirement so unbearable for him. Detective Frampton (Emily Mortimer) suspects that Harry is the vigilante but, before she can move to stop him, both she and Harry are targeted by the local drug lord, who turns out to be someone who Harry never suspected.
Harry Brown is really just an updated version of Death Wish, set in London instead of New York. It has its share of good action scenes and director Daniel Barber does a good job making London look like the worst place on Earth but, ultimately, it’s as predictable and heavy-handed as any of the films Michael Winner made with Charles Bronson. What makes Harry Brown special is not the script but instead the presence of Michael Caine, giving one of his best and most heartfelt performances and making the movie work, even when the story tries to sabotage him. Caine brings an appropriate amount of righteous fury to the role but he also plays the role with a lot of heart. Harry would much rather be enjoying his twilight years in peace but he feels that he was one last mission to pursue. He would rather die protecting his friends and his neighbors than live his life in fear. Harry also knows that, because he’s old, everyone underestimates him. That’s a mistake that he uses to his advantage.
Harry Brown is like many Michael Caine films in that the main reason to watch it is because it’s a Michael Caine film. At the time he made the film, he said that he expected Harry Brown would be his last lead role. It wasn’t. Just like Harry Brown, Michael Caine still has more to show the world.