In Harry Brown, we meet the offspring of British kitchen-sink miserabilism and a Cannon Group vigilante saga circa 1985. Were Charles Bronson alive, he'd no doubt be playing the title character: a meek, widowed pensioner living in a South London estate overrun by teenage thugs. But no: As the credits inform us, "Michael Caine is Harry Brown," and the 77-year-old actor's unfussy gravity and hard-man credibility help to elevate material that could easily have started life as Exterminator 3.
When his last friend (David Bradley) gets butchered by the drug-dealing punks who rule the roost, Caine's Harry dusts off his ex-Marine assassin's chops and begins picking off the creeps. Meanwhile, a sympathetic investigator (Emily Mortimer, doing a strikingly quavery variation on a stock role) tries vainly to convince her sexist superiors that the tweedy old man is actually the Rambo of the British projects.
The director, Daniel Barber, applies some hand-held grit and mopey sobriety for a veneer of realism. But the pretense of significance is more offensive than the tawdry revenge theatrics it's intended to mask. Even so, it's pretty hard to resist Caine's late-model action-hero turn, delivering ridiculous parting-shot catchphrases ("You failed to maintain your weapon, son") with old-pro zest.