The premise of “Harry Brown” generally leaves one with two thoughts. The first is the gleeful mental image of Michael Caine taking it to some bad guys, Charles Bronson-style, in bombed-out, lower-class London projects. The second is the worry that the actor will be too old to pull it off. The movie, which casts Caine as the fed-up pensioner of the title, executes a neat trick. Caine's Harry Brown does go ex-military on some troublesome hoods, and he is too old. But rather than be a hindrance to the action, the latter fact merely heightens it.
Harry's low-rent neighborhood makes it a haven for criminals as well as pensioners like Harry and his best friend, Leonard (David Bradley), who's been singled out for bullying by local thugs. When Leonard is murdered and the detective (Emily Mortimer) assigned to the case can do nothing, Harry, a widower and former British Army badass, is forced to pull his special-operations knife out of the closet and get to sharpening.
In the vein of “Death Wish,” “Walking Tall” and countless other revenge sagas featuring lone men taking on gangs of “punks,” “Harry Brown” has a predictable but satisfying rhythm. Relentlessly depicted acts of depravity by local hooligans push us along with Harry to the breaking point, so it comes as a relief when he finally takes the law into his own hands. Caine, despite being 77, brings his usual gravity in that signature accent.
The film's lengthy centerpiece, in which the hero infiltrates the den of one of the most despicable drug dealers ever depicted in the movies, ends with a worthy addition to the canon of tough-guy dialogue found in the best of such films. “You forgot to clean your weapon, sir,” Harry announces over his prostrate victim when the dust finally settles. “Harry Brown” ultimately falls a little short of classic status, mostly because it tries to say more than it should, but it has plenty of classic moments worth seeing. (R) 97 min. ***