'The kids in the estate" - sounds kind of like a children's story.


Michael Caine, in the title role of Harry Brown, is talking about the thugs hanging around the council housing, the projects, where he lives. Running drugs and harassing neighbors, these punks have turned the government-subsidized high-rises in a drab corner of London into an urban nightmare.

And when Harry, recently widowed and all shut down inside, loses his best friend to the gangs he can see from his window, well, he takes matters into his own hands. Hands that are clutching some serious weaponry.

Gritty and compelling up to a point, but cheaply exploitive as well, Harry Brown (from director Daniel Barber and screenwriter Gary Young) offers a British take on the Death Wish series and other vigilante fantasies. There's no denying that the legal system and the police aren't getting the job done, but the film's "realism" only goes so far: When Harry ventures out to buy a gun to avenge his old pal's murder, the squalid warehouse he visits is a one-stop crime shop run by two bug-eyed, strung-out, tattooed caricatures. Heroin, marijuana, automatic weapons, porn, even Viagra is for sale here, if the blokes in charge can stay conscious long enough to carry out the transaction.

Likewise, Emily Mortimer's Detective Inspector Alice Frampton is so depressed and apologetic about the inability of her colleagues to close in on the criminals that she becomes a cartoon of helplessness. The scenes between Mortimer and Caine have a nice edge to them, but that has little to do with the script - they're just two very good actors.

Caine is the reason to see Harry Brown, and the reason it deserves any serious attention. It wouldn't be hard to imagine another Harry in Caine's resumé - Harry Palmer of The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, and Billion Dollar Brain - turning into this "vigilante pensioner" if the 1960s spy boy had a couple of bad breaks in his middle years. Harry Brown and Harry Palmer are both working-class ex-military men with tightly held moral codes. They're both equipped to deliver a dry and cutting catchphrase, too. (Brown's, after a cretin's gun misfires, is: "You failed to maintain your weapon, sir.")

Working itself into a lather of confrontation and conspiratorial hooey, Harry Brown ends in a cross fire of incredulity and cliché. And Harry? He just shrugs it off, a lonely soul out for a stroll in a place miraculously wiped clean of menacing hoodlums.

Harry Brown **1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Daniel Barber. With Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Iain Glen, and David Bradley. Distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Running time: 1 hours, 43 mins.

Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, drugs, sex, adult themes).

Playing at: Ritz East.EndText

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies.