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Michael Caine Is the Man Who Would Be Bronson

He cleans up South London (Harry Brown), but nobody cleans up New Jersey (The Cartel).

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Michael Caine is the sort of actor we tend to take for granted. He's been so good for so long, in so many kinds of roles in so many types of movies, that it's easy to pass him by in making up a list of remarkable play-actors. He's a masterful changeling, and yet somehow he's forever just another version of the cockney character we always understood him to be.

The effete commanding officer in Zulu. Harry Palmer the working-class spy in The Ipcress File and its two follow-ups. Alfie, the embodiment of swinging Sixties London. His breezy work in comic crime-caper flicks like The Italian Job and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. An East End gangster in the original Get Carter. Toe-to-toe with Laurence Olivier in Sleuth. Peachy Carnahan the British army renegade in The Man Who Would Be King. Julie Walters' kindly keeper in Educating Rita. Filling in the gaps with Hannah and Her Sisters. And running through the wickets, collecting a paycheck in dozens of movies that no one remembers except for the presence of Michael Caine.

Lately, the 77-year-old actor has been mainly sopping up roles in his comfort zone: the world-weary Graham Greene romantic in Philip Noyce's The Quiet American, Alfred the butler in Batman Begins, Andrew the wronged party in the unnecessary remake of Sleuth (in a reversal of the first version's casting), and, out of the blue, the touching part of the dazed old hippie, Jasper, in Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men — one of Caine's finest character portrayals. We're willing to forgive him for grabbing a job in such toothless movies as Flawless and Is Anybody There? because, well, he's earned it. Let's not even mention The Cider House Rules.

It's with all this in mind that we approach Caine's latest, Harry Brown, the story of a lonely old man living out the last months of his life in a suitably grotesque council housing estate in one of contemporary London's least fashionable neighborhoods.

Harry reminds us of Harry Palmer — if he had lived that long — or perhaps Alfie Elkins in his twilight years, a pensioner just squeaking by, dreaming sadly of his used-to-bes, horrified with the modern world but reluctant to take arms against a sea of troubles, etc. Mr. Brown, a widower, seemingly has no one in his life except his friend Leonard (David Bradley), with whom he plays quiet games of chess, afternoons at the pub.

The estate and surrounding area are firmly in the grip of a bunch of young thugs who deal drugs and rape women in and around the pedestrian underpass. Harry and Leonard are disgusted and frightened by the thugs, Leonard particularly, but the gangbangers take no notice of them and nothing much happens until Leonard is victimized one night. Suddenly, harmless Harry Brown reveals himself to be an ex-Royal Marine killer, the Avenging Angel of Walworth, Southwark, South London. Harry snaps, and then we've got ourselves a spectacle.

It's a credit to director Daniel Barber, as well as to Caine, that the overly familiar Death Wish-style procedurals of Harry Brown play out so convincingly. Knowing full well that revenge movies are a dime a dozen — ditto tales of pathetic senior citizens — Barber and Caine manage to overcome both Gary Young's screenplay and the ghost of Charles Bronson in Harry's quest through the underworld.

Once he's made up his mind, no one in the immediate vicinity is a match for Harry. The local police investigator, Alice Frampton (ubiquitous Emily Mortimer), and her assistant, Terry Hickok (Charlie Creed-Miles), mostly just stand around and look dazed while their superior, Superintendent Childs (Iain Glen), fumes. No one suspects a bland geezer like Harry of leaving a trail of stiffs. Then there's Noel (Ben Drew), the vicious head thug; Marky (Jack O'Connell), the poor stool pigeon who would rather get himself kneecapped than admit he gives blowjobs to the drug kingpin; and the pair of gargoyles — let's just call them Jeff Beck and Gollum — who run a marijuana farm inside their torture den. And let's not forget veteran actor Liam Cunningham as Sid the crooked publican, with his Belfast lilt. Clearly South London is a nest of vipers.

Caine plays Harry with a straight face, as written, but it's inescapable that the character only comes alive in the heat of battle. Harry's "gutshot" tale of soldierly endeavor in Northern Ireland is especially flavorful. Suffice it to say that if the Metropolitan Police enlisted a squad of duffers like Harry, they could clean up London in a week. Meanwhile, English filmmaker Barber (he directed Elmore Leonard's The Tonto Woman in 2007) accepts the challenge of his material and exploits the lower-class-violence milieu for all it's worth. It's not always completely realistic — the estate youth riot is a case in point — but we always have Harry to keep us focused. He's the man who would be Bronson.

More youth troubles. Bob Bowdon, a TV broadcast newsman and talk show host from New Jersey, made the Michael-Moore-style documentary The Cartel to shed some light on the state of public education in the United States, using New Jersey's tangled bureaucracy as an example.

So, exactly what and who are the Cartel? The way Bowdon paints it, unions and politicians are the chief preventers of education in the "school district business," where administrative costs eat up budgets and, according to one of Bowdon's talking heads, "The children are not the focus; money is the focus." In New Jersey, which pays more for education than any other state, the main bugaboos according to Bowdon are political machines, entrenched teachers' unions, lack of real competition, lack of merit pay for teachers, and that perennial favorite, local corruption. Public money, as the saying goes, is free money.

After ninety minutes of charts, graphs, and tearful testimony, we get the point. Lest we relax and imagine that only "the Soprano State" has school boards loaded with ward heelers and patronage loafers, Bowdon warns us that it's the same everywhere in the country. Let's bring in Harry Brown — he'll make 'em behave. The Cartel is being distributed by Truly Indie and has its Bay Area engagement at Landmark's Opera Plaza in San Francisco.

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