Last night, I finally watched a movie that I have been anticipating for a while. And I’m still trying to process it.
I wanted to like this movie. I really did. I thought that a film about a decorated Royal Marine in retirement who gets fed up with the crime and filth plaguing his home would be impressive. Kind of like the juggernaut of violence that he played in 1971′s ode to violence, Get Carter. But that wasn’t what I got.
The movie started slow. We get a crawling introduction to Harry, now an old age pensioner living in ugly housing blocks. He is struggling with the fact that his wife is institutionalized, suffering from a nameless malady…dementia, Altzhiemers…take your pick. The parts of the days not spent in silence at her bedside, watching her stare off into space, are spent playing chess with an old friend, Leonard, at the local pub.
Leonard cannot conceal his contempt with crime and decay that surrounds him. He points out the openly conducted drug trade to his friend Harry, over a game of chess, horrifying Harry, because it might call attention to them. Leonard’s anger grows as the local gangs do what they can to terrorize him. Leonard cannot understand why Harry, a decorated veteran of the Northern Ireland campaigns, does nothing to even express dismay at what goes on around them. When pressed, Harry explained that when he met his wife, he knew he could never again be the man that he had been.
Two tragedies, one on the heels of the other, shatter Harry’s world, and after getting bad news from the Police, Harry surveils the predators living among his neighborhood. And then gets to work.
As the story unfolds, you get glimmers of the man that the mild-mannered Harry has suppressed, perhaps for decades. An interrogation scene offers a glimpse of the cold-blooded brutality that was necessary to be the Queen’s Man in Belfast and come home alive. But this hardness is still restrained, kept in check. While his age and ailments prevent him from unrolling the blanket of revenge all in one night, Harry does, inevitably, prevail. And by a quirk of fate, a major police raid, and an incredulous constabulary, Harry is not pursued by the law for his extermination of the trash poisoning his neighborhood.
One of the few moments in the film that worked for me was when he was confronted about the violence going on around him, and how he must be used to it from his time in Northern Ireland. Harry’s response was the same as the one in my head, namely, that at least those people were fighting for something, whereas the youths in his neighborhood did it for entertainment.
I wanted to like this movie. I really did. But the presentation was unnecessarily slow, even for a British production, and I found it impossible to believe that a man who had witnessed and participated in the horrors that he did would be able to lock that all away for the love of a woman alone. The payoffs, when they came, had no emotion, no slaking of vengeance. It was justice, and more than many of them deserved, but it was too restrained. Ultimately, Harry’s violence was no more than what was required to balance the accounts, but ultimately it left me cold.
As I thought about it over breakfast, it occurred to me that this was the British version of Gran Torino. But where Gran Torino’s main character sacrifices himself to give his neighbor and friend a chance to find his own life without living under the heel of the crime and decay that surrounds him, Harry’s act was revenge that gave his community some breathing room and a chance to come outside during the day. The cultural differences between we and our cousins remain well-defined.