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Committed: Harry Brown is The Dark Knight Returns

052610_harrybrown“Michael Caine is Batman in The Dark Knight Returns.”

That thought kept echoing in my head, all the way through Harry Brown.

I’m not saying that they should make a movie adaptation of the graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. I’m saying they did. It’s called Harry Brown, and Michael Caine is incredible in it.

Here’s the thing, I think I’m over seeing the blow-by-blow comic book to movie adaptations. Back in the 1980′s when someone explained to me that comic books were like a combination of a script and a storyboard for film making, and what an opportunity that was, I got excited along with everyone else. Who wouldn’t want their beloved medium to have as wide an audience as possible, and what better way to do that, than to bring the gift of sound and movement to the mix? Lately though, I feel like I’m overdosing on the adaptation-by-rote that has become the norm. If something is created as a comic book, then it will ultimately need more than a simple translation to be able to create the same feeling that it did upon reading. The core and the soul of the book cannot be conjured by simply slavishly and mindlessly recreating every scene. I’m beginning to feel that in many ways, while it is a dear pleasure to see my childhood heroes faithfully and perfectly recreated on screen, what I crave is to recreate the true spirit of the books that I loved.

052610_dkrcoverBack when The Dark Knight Returns came out, there was talk that this was a Dirty Harry-esque Batman, and I always envisioned him as Clint Eastwood. But when he did get old he turned into this wizened little caricature of himself, all dried up and brittle. While Michael Caine grew old and into himself, he opened up and breathed some girth into his body, which is exactly what an aging Batman needs, and in Harry Brown he is precisely the character, seeking exactly the same kind of recourse, in a very similar environment.

As a teen reading The Dark Knight Returns for the first time, my world view was pretty juvenile and simplistic. Back then, the book fit into my brain perfectly, embodying a whole era of pain and anxiety about the kind of world I was growing up in. If I read it for the first time now I’d probably still enjoy it, but wouldn’t find it quite as life-altering. It’s just a little two-dimensional, which is not to say that it isn’t great fun, however, this sort of story does not have the same impact on adult me as it did on teenage me. I can’t get as personally involved in a story that is such a noir pastiche. At the time, The Dark Knight Returns was harrowing, intense, beautiful, and certainly genre-altering at the time. Now, in order to adapt it for my adult, 21st century taste, I want to see something with all of the intensity and bleak anguish I read between the lines in it when it came out . This is where Michael Caine comes in.

People have asked me if Harry Brown isn’t just a British version of Gran Torino. I can only imagine that they’re saying this because both films star men who were sex symbols of their day, and are now elderly. This is really the only thing that they have in common. One is a film about waging a violent, bloody, cold, personal war of vengeance, while another is a film about community, family, love and redemption. Saying that Gran Torino is like Harry Brown is as valid as saying that Grease is just like The French Connection because they both have car races in them. It does both films a disservice and is extremely misleading.

052610_michaelcaineIn actuality the film is far harsher than I imagined. Just like Batman in The Dark Knight Returns, Harry Brown is an old man at the absolute end of his tether, faced with trying to live in at a dysfunctional, dangerous society which is no longer able to self-govern in any sense of the word. It is chaos without compassion or care. Suddenly finding himself completely isolated and alone in his hell-hole of a council estate (that’s a project in American), without a single friend or family member, he is a man forced to find his own path. With nothing at all to lose, he draws on his training as a former Marine to wage a brutal and calculated war on people who have absolutely no moral center. He judges them for their crime, and takes action when no one else can or will. Ostensibly too old, operating outside of the limits of his health and the law, Harry/Batman takes it upon himself to clean things up with surgical precision, he makes the world around him a little more palatable by removing the broken elements.

052610_dkrpageThere’s nothing about this which is reasonable, but Harry/Batman does it anyway, because no one else can. Alone, isolated, in mourning for the people he loved, he takes his pain and simply moves into a productive angry vengeance. With nothing left to lose, like a kamikaze, he pits himself against villainy and scum using strategy, detective work, and a keen intelligence. His black and white view of the world is limiting, but it allows him to make the hard choices and take the necessary action.

You really don’t get more like The Dark Knight Returns than this. It is a beautiful thing and it opened my eyes to the fact that although I spent my youth dreaming about a day when people would be able to enjoy the graphic novels that were changing my life, making them into movies might not be capturing the true heart of the story. In future, if I want to convey to a non-comic book reader why they might enjoy The Dark Knight Returns, I’m going to ask if they’ve seen Harry Brown.

33 Comments

“People have asked me if HARRY BROWN isn’t just a British version of Grand Torino”: People have actually asked you that? How bizarre. I would have thought that they would have made a comparison to Charles Bronson’s first DEATH WISH film (not the atrocious sequels).Glad to hear that you liked the film, as my father is itching to see it.

I hated Harry Brown for the same exact reason I’ve never been able to see DKR as the sort of masterpiece many others seem to think it is. They both view the world from a reactionary conservative point of view, where cities are in chaos, and the streets are ran by criminals who’re depicted not as human, but as evil animals. These stories justify the vendettas of Harry/Batman by totally dehumanizing the evildoers they go against. Because these thugs only know the language of violence, the only way to fight them is by more violence. It’s true that both DKR and Harry Brown depict their protagonists as desperate and mentally unstable, but ultimately they’re still the heroes of the story, and their worldview is vindicated. With DKR there’s at least more than this going on though, and the non-realistic setting makes the vigilantism easier to swallow, so it’s still enjoyable despite its politics. But Harry Brown was an ugly movie. It has a great actor doing a great performance, and the film-makers make sure the viewers come to feel great sympathy for Harry Brown’s suffering – and then they use that sympathy to justify a nasty, extreme right-wing revenge fantasy.

DetectiveDupin

May 26, 2010 at 10:42 am

I’m psyched for this film.

I really enjoyed Harry Brown, and I never actually thought of DKR while watching it. However, I was thinking, “man, this movie’s worldview feels so ’80′s.’” So maybe that counts toward the same feeling. Great comparison, though. Bleak movie but I felt it was lean and deliberate — that’s actually where I think it kind of differs from DKR, if I compare to the two.

Miller’s story was packed full of asides, commentary — it’s a very loud, noisy, chaotic rush of newscasters, TV pundits, etc. On the other hand, Brown keeps it reigned in… there’s a lot of silence in between lines. Every action is deliberate. Two old men at a pub, the pregnant silence swelling between them. It’s a spare story, slightly haunting, and then it ramped up into chaos, but it still always felt “small” to me. Know what I mean?

Anyway, great piece again, Sonia!

“But Harry Brown was an ugly movie. It has a great actor doing a great performance, and the film-makers make sure the viewers come to feel great sympathy for Harry Brown’s suffering – and then they use that sympathy to justify a nasty, extreme right-wing revenge fantasy.”

Sounds like fun to me!

I remember having the exact same feelings about DKR as you did when I read it as a young teen.
And a very sad disappointed when I read its sequal.

I am interested in Harry Brown, but I worry that anyone I ask to sit through it with me will think I enjoy it for the “wrong” reasons.

-Aside: Interestingly, I distinctly remember Frank Miller stating how much he DID NOT want comics to become fodder for movies and mass media, how he was very satisfied w/ them being their own thing.
Now look at him . . .

Captain Doctor Master

May 26, 2010 at 1:47 pm

“I’ve never been able to see DKR as the sort of masterpiece many others seem to think it is.”

Tuomas, I feel the same way.

I think Dark Knight Returns is okay. Nothing more. Certainly nowhere near as good as Miller’s Daredevil work.

Omar Karindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!

May 26, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Actually this sounds a lot like a sort of spiritual sequel to Caine’s first great “cold-blooded revenge” film, Get Carter.

I never liked DKR, but then again, I didn’t like the second Miller run on DD either.

DKR was something of a shock, however. Its Batman was an all-out fascist with no appealing or redeeming qualities whatsoever.

funkygreenjerusalem

May 26, 2010 at 6:39 pm

People have asked me if Harry Brown isn’t just a British version of Gran Torino. I can only imagine that they’re saying this because both films star men who were sex symbols of their day, and are now elderly. This is really the only thing that they have in common.

Actually they are probably asking it because Gran Torino was advertised to make it look like what Harry Brown is.
I’ve described it to people as ‘what you wanted Gran Torino to be’.

Saying that Gran Torino is like Harry Brown is as valid as saying that Grease is just like The French Connection because they both have car races in them. It does both films a disservice and is extremely misleading.

Both are about widowers in their twilight years, both former marines, in world that has passed them by, doing what they feel needs to be done to make it better.
They go in different directions with it, but both start from the same idea, a proactive take on the sheriff from No Country For Old Men.
So people wondering about a connection between the two aren’t that far off at all – I’d say the two are more similar in themes/concept than either is to Dark Knight Returns.

Dark Knight Returns is the best comic ever when you’re 12. I still like it. I also like Dark Knight Strikes Again.

“I also like Dark Knight Strikes Again.”

Me too, Bill. Me too. I don’t know what that says about us, but I thought it was a ton of fun.

Les Fontenelle

May 26, 2010 at 10:14 pm

Make that three of us who like Dark Knight Strikes Again. We shall not be silenced!

I’d love to see a Batman Beyond movie starring Clint Eastwood as Bruce Wayne.

I actually prefer Dark Knight Strikes Again over Dark Knight Returns, because it’s just Miller doing a fun and exciting spandex romp, with most of the dodgy politics of the original series having been excised. Some of the ideas in DKSA are really cool, like the explanation why The Atom and Flash have been missing in this future world. I wish Miller would do more colourful superhero epics like DKSA, instead of the boring ol’ Dark and Gritty Urban Thrillers he’s been churning out for years.

The satirical elements of DKR keep it from being a true right-wing fantasy. Yes, Batman is a vigilante hero, but the fact that the problems of Gotham (and this satirical version of 1980s America) and cannot be addressed with vigilantism is made plainly evident. That the villain who ends up doing the most damage in DKR is the unnamed President (drawn to look like Ronald Reagan) and he’s outside of Batman’s reach (in fact, he seems outside of Batman’s awareness.)

Miller’s satire skewers demagogues on both the left and the right, and this is a dimension that started disappearing from his writing as he got more and more into his dark and gritty style which is why I don’t find his recent work nearly as interesting.

That’s a whole dimension that isn’t seen in Harry Brown.

I used to think Edward Woodward (Breaker Morant and the t.v. series, The Equalizer) would have been a good choice especially because he has that “moneyed” aura while still carrying a gun/beating up someone.

But Woodward has died and Michael Caine has aged to the point that he could play the part — a bit aristocratic, not afraid to be physical, experienced, and a bit world weary but still retaining a youthful glint in his eye. To play Batman/Bruce, you need all of these qualities. While Clint is a fine actor, he is humorless.

Tony V: “…and Michael Caine has aged to the point that he could play the part-a bit aristocratic….”. I am afraid that “aristocratic” is the one term that I would never use for Michael Caine. The man is purely working class in affect. Indeed, whenever he tries for something a little higher on the social scale (Cf. his OTT turn as an aristocratic officer in ZULU), it comes off as quite strained. Also, Caine is simply not capable of doing an American accent, as evidenced by his painful attempts in SECOND HAND LIONS and THE CIDER HOUSE RULES.

Some Americans mistake English accents as “aristocratic.” Only some are aristocratic.

Trajan is correct. Caine has a working class accent. A very articulate one, but it is still English working class. What he does do is project a level of dignity and bearing that comes from his character’s past as a decorated soldier.

[...] Comics should be good: Committed: Harry Brown is The Dark Knight Returns [...]

Ian Thal: “Some Americans mistake English accents as “aristocratic.” : That is very true. Just a few weeks back a friend of mine was remarking on the “aristocratic” accent used by the owner of a book shop. The owner (a very nice fellow) speaks with a very broad Mancunian accent.

Regarding Caine, I hope that no one misconstrues my comments regarding his accent as a slam against Caine. He is a very fine actor.He just can’t speak RP.

@trajan23 — you’re right — that word came to mind but I could not think of a better term to express what I meant. I realize that he has a working class accent as do several of my friends — I don’t know if they would be complimented by referring to it as aristocratic.

While he doesn’t have an aristocratic accent, I can still understand seeing him as having an aristocratic bearing. At least until you watch Zulu.

Now I REALLY want to see this.

Oh and I LOVE DKR and thoroughly enjoyed DK2

I have not watched this Harry Brown movie yet. However, the idea of Michael Caine being Batman in The Dark Knight Returns is a fascinating one, especially since he played Alfred in The Dark Knight. It’s as if the hunting down of Christian Bale’s character at the end of that movie has compelled someone (Alfred/Michael Caine) to step up and take up the Batman role. Which then would lead to Harry Brown…

i think the parallels people draw between Harry Brown and Gran Torino are that they both seem like stories of the actors’ most famous characters picked up when they are older and in worlds they don’t understand. Gran Torino could be the story of Harry Callahan aged 80 as Harry Brown could be a story of Jack Carter (well, maybe not so much as Carter died if i remember correctly)

So they both fit in with the high concept of Dark Knight Returns; old man vigilante makes a last hurrah comeback, past his physical prime, because he’s sick of what the world around him has become.

my first thought upon seeing the previews of harry brown was “british death wish.” my second thought was that a better title for the movie would be “chav killer!”

I watched it last night and half way through it thought to myself “hmmm, better version of Death Wish”

Olly, Carter doesn’t die at the end of Get Carter. The ending of the film was left as is to make it appear as if he had died, but if you’ve read Hughes’ original novel Carter Takes a Train, Carter is shot, but still living at the end. There used to be a rule in English cinema – I don’t know if it was in the US cinema, too – where the bad guys being seen to get away/win was prohibited. So, Mike Hodges deliberately kept the camera at a far-away enough distance that the audience would have to make up their own mind. Similarly, the end of the Italian Job, where the bus hangs over the edge of the cliff, was the only way that the makers could get away with the “bad guys” escaping. Cheers.

Edit: in the later released version of Get Carter, the scene is reshot to show Michael Caine taking a bullet to the head in close-up.

Harry Brown lover

June 4, 2010 at 6:26 am

I thought Harry Brown was a great film and i thought it was a good representation of the youth of today(not all but a good deal of them)- a bunch of idiotic violent twats that get their kicks out of causing violence to others. Yes the movie’s view may be a little right wing, but hey, maybe the world needs a bit of extremism. Bring on the Batman!!

funkygreenjerusalem

June 4, 2010 at 6:41 am

So, Mike Hodges deliberately kept the camera at a far-away enough distance that the audience would have to make up their own mind.

Nah, he dies in all versions – the film is full of references to the fact he’s going to die, from the very first shot!
(As Hodges calls it on the commentary, ‘curtains for Carter’),

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