RATING |

The cinema of codger ass-kicking expands with "Harry Brown," Michael Caine's contribution to the "Gran Torino" oeuvre.

This time it's Caine as the war veteran retiree who watches his neighborhood go to hell, then finally decides to confront the youth gangs who've taken over.

The difference is that Caine makes Harry Brown transformative - Clint Eastwood's character was uniformly grouchy, while Caine starts out as a frail, weepy, vulnerable pensioner and morphs into Dirty Harry Brown.

Probably fun for Caine, but it makes the movie a little baffling. "Brown" starts out as a kind of Ken Loach-y thing, with an apparent interest in the social reality of dead-end lives in the public housing projects (referred to in the British way as "the estate").

You keep expecting "Harry Brown" to provide some context for the actions of the vicious punks, but they are revealed to be strictly one-dimensional "Death Wish" caricatures - luridly portrayed so that we can better enjoy the moment when Harry puts them down.

How lurid? Director Daniel Barber sets some kind of pump-priming record in a sequence that has Harry buying a handgun.

Harry enters the dealer's apartment and wanders through several acres of indoor marijuana plants before he gets to the VIP room, where a dying hooker slave reclines with a needle sticking out of her arm, while a graphic video of her recent rape plays in the background.

Porn, rape, prostitution, drugs, weapons - it's not easy to lay all of that at the feet of a single slimy villain in just a few broad strokes, but Barber manages, creating the groundwork for the outraged slaughter (complete with snappy one-liner) that follows.

What makes "Brown" better than the average "Death Wish" clone is the cast - Caine makes a pretty good Bronson, and Emily Mortimer is an upgrade as the tremulous representative of the overmatched, ineffective police department.

Produced by Kris Thykier, Matthew Vaughn, Matthew Brown, directed by Daniel Barber, written by Gary Young.