No Concessions: Michael Caine Revengeful, “Metropolis” Restored

Written by Film, No Concessions

Last week, Hit Girl. This week, Hit Pensioner, as Michael Caine mows ’em down as Harry Brown. This is familiar territory for Caine, whose nasty gangland thriller Get Carter still reverberates in the culture 40 years later. The difference is that the actor is 78 years old, a time when most performers are happy (or perhaps resigned) to play eccentric old duffers and let the younger guys (and 11-year-old kids) walk tall among the scum-infested pedestrian walkways of blighted urban areas.

I can’t enter an underpass without thinking about the terrible crime inflicted on poor Monica Bellucci in the notorious French-made rape-revenge saga Irreversible (2002), and the one here promises even worse horrors. The film begins with housing estate hooligans, who hole up in the tunnel to shoot drugs and God knows what else, terrorizing and grievously injuring a mum who is strolling with her baby. From what the film tells us, those estates, where Helen Mirren walked a beat in the Prime Suspect shows, have only gotten worse since she retired from the force. Someone has got to take out the garbage, and it’s not going to be the police, who are at best ineffectual and at worst inept, or some lame coalition government. It’s up to Harry Brown, who tiptoes around the walkway to visit his senile wife at hospital. When in rapid succession he loses her to illness and his fear-stricken best friend (David Bradley) to the thugs it’s time for Harry to haul out his old weapons (unused, and shunned, since his stint as a marine in Northern Ireland), pick up a few new ones from the neighborhood’s resident fixers, and go to work.

Though the technology has advanced (instead of snuff films as a catalyst for righteous revenge, Harry Brown has snuff cellphone videos) the template for this kind of vigilante flick hasn’t changed much since Death Wish (1974) made Charles Bronson an international sensation at age 53. “Avenger” is the one job still open to white guys of a certain age, and beyond; Caine follows in the gunsights of Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, who is just shy of 80. But that was a sloppier, more sentimental picture. Harry Brown is cruder, and meaner, in the mold of old-school Bronson (and Eastwood). You leave the theater not wanting to break down the barriers of race and class that separate us but recoiling from your fellow man.

Harry Brown is trashy—watchably trashy, and if grindhouses still existed it would fit right in. Caine has had a career of memorable highs and shattering lows, all for the sake of keeping in work (his appearances in poor retreads of Get Carter and Sleuth are like savagely self-inflicted wounds). His stolid performance here siphons off his gangsta mojo, which reinvigorates the emphysema-wracked Brown, and Gary Young’s unsurprising script. When Harry gets to dispensing justice he’s as credibly icy as Caine’s slimy villain in the great Mona Lisa (1986), except that he’s on our side, carrying the weight that our institutions have dropped. (Their representative is attractively if thanklessly played by Emily Mortimer, as a police investigator.)

When Harry is eventually called to account for himself he explains that, in the time of the Troubles, he pursued men of purpose and conviction; these hoods, he says, all but looking at the camera, view “violence as entertainment.” The first-time director, Daniel Barber, received an Oscar nomination for a short, 2007’s The Tonto Woman. To judge from Harry Brown, he’s already mastered the fine art of making us mildly complicit while letting us off the hook. The bad guys aren’t just bad—they’re reptiles sewn into human skins, and the worst are the hopped-up gunrunners, who in a scene stretched to Tarantino length leave an underage girl to fade away from an overdose as Harry (and us) catch glimpses of the porno they made with her. The movie gets over its handwringing pretty quickly so we can get on with enjoying the mayhem. Harry Brown is effective, like ant killer.

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Just in time for the summer movie season is an all-but-complete restoration, at last, of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), the cornerstone of science fiction filmmaking. The timing couldn’t be more appropriate. Lang’s fevered masterpiece, on the heels of his equally legendary espionage and fantasy productions (1922’s Dr. Mabuse the Gambler and 1924’s Die Nibelungen, respectively), is a groundbreaking smorgasbord. It’s as if he foresaw the coming of the blockbuster era and squeezed ten movies into one.

The saga of the renewal of Metropolis is an
epic
in itself. The new footage bolsters one character and clarifies a few things, though clarity is not high on the list of the film’s attributes. The go-for-broke quality that gives it its appeal and influence later disappointed its maker, who (like H.G. Wells and other critics of its day) wished it had a clearer sociopolitical message. (Lang, who fled Germany for a second great career as a film noir stylist in Hollywood, was unhappy that the Nazis adored the movie.) Its astounding visuals, of a future urban cityscape, the underground workers whose toil sustains it, and the robot that undermines it (amidst a complicated plot involving insane jealousy, messianic religion, peaceful activism, and apocalyptic destruction) are timeless.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Metropolis, which was a staple on PBS in New York when I was growing up. In 1984 Giorgio Moroder rocked the house with his own stylized take on the movie, which went the ay of New Coke. Here’s a fan edit of a typical highlight:

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A prior, gorgeous restoration was released in 2002. I saw a special screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and can say it was one of the highlights of my moviegoing life:

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And now we have it as no one has seen it in generations. Metropolis is a silent movie that makes today’s noisier attention-getters look puny by comparison.

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