Even though I have an Unlimited card – for a small monthly fee, I can see any film that Cineworld shows, any time, any where – I still saw this film via a free preview screening. I have no idea why I did this. I do strange things some times.
I have to admit to not being the greatest fan of Michael Caine – he has been in some good films, but he has been in some stinkers that he did just for the money; he has been good in films, but I also think he’s been rather awful in some as well. However, I think that he has got better as he has got older, reaching an elder statesman status so that he doesn’t have to appear in crap any more. And he seems to have got funnier as he’s got older – he was great as Alfred in the Christopher Nolan Batman films, and he was hilarious in Miss Congeniality.
I think what drew me to this film was two factors: Caine was playing his age and it was set in south London. Although I’m a north Londoner by birth, I’m now happy to call ‘Sarf Lahndan’ my home and, even though I don’t live in the areas used in this film, I know them and their ilk. Caine plays the eponymous character, a former marine who lives on a grim south London estate; early in the film, he wife passes away after some time in hospital, and you see him as a lonely old man going about his life in a quiet way, his only friend being another pensioner, Leonard (David Bradley). The estate they live on is dominated by the Daily Mail nightmare ‘yoof’, all hoodies and violence, some of which they witness but can do nothing about. However, Leonard cannot take the abuse (such as burning dog faeces through his letter box) and stands up to the hooligans, only for him to be killed. This causes Caine to decide to do something about it.
The first two-thirds of the movie are absorbing and, in some sections, tense – the kitchen sink drama of pensioners on a south London estate giving way to Caine acquiring guns from a drug dealer (a great scene, with the great line, ‘You’ve failed to maintain your weapon’) and using his marine training to find out who killed Leonard. The director, Daniel Barber, has an unfussy style but it is meticulous and absorbing, and you are drawn into the story despite the underwritten police characters played by well-known actors (Emily Mortimer and Iain Glen).
However, the final act becomes far too much of an action film for the preceding sections, especially the cowboy-like finale. More importantly, the film seems to condone vigilantism – it seems to say that the uncontrollable young men on the estate are villains who deserve to die, and it has Caine kill people involved and Caine stays alive at the end of the film, even though policemen have died because of his actions, and without getting into trouble with the law. This is a very uncomfortable message, which seems at odds with the first two-thirds of the film, which seemed very much set in reality.
The film is not bad – Caine is very good as a pensioner who decides to use his military training in an illegal way – and it seems more than just a British answer to Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (both have similar themes and both play on the cinematic image of their leading men), but it stops being a good film when it decides to divert from its reality and into something else.