'Harry Brown'

Revenge may be sweet.

Unless it's dispensed by "Harry Brown," a British "Death Wish"-meets-"Gran Torino" thriller redeemed -- only partially -- by yet another predictably expert Michael Caine performance.

Caine's presence in a movie automatically means he's worth watching, even if the movie's not.

Fortunately, "Harry Brown's" a bit better than that. But only just.

You keep watching, hoping the rest of the movie will catch up, and match up, with Caine's cold, compelling implacability.

No such luck.

Instead, "Harry Brown" drags us down the same dark alleys we've visited (too) many times before. And while there's plenty of firepower, there's not enough light -- or insight -- to give the repeat journey much more than visceral impact.

And while Sir Michael's been down these mean streets plenty of times , "Harry Brown's" title character is no hard-boiled professional thug. Far from it.

He's a decorated veteran, a former Royal Marine who earned a chestful of medals in Northern Ireland, then put all the terror and violence behind him in favor of a quiet family life.

These days, however, his family is gone -- his daughter buried in a nearby churchyard and his beloved wife destined to follow her there all too soon.

And life is anything but quiet in the rundown public housing complex where Harry resides, along with a horde of drug-addled, hell-raising teens who delight in terrorizing their cowed neighbors.

Harry's pal Leonard (British stalwart David Bradley, "Harry Potter's" Argus Filch), with whom he spends quiet afternoons playing chess at the local pub, is so rattled by this rabble that Leonard arms himself with an ancient Army bayonet and vows to Do Something About It.

Let the police handle it, Harry advises.

Inevitably, Leonard does. And the coppers don't.

All of which prompts Harry to get in touch with his killing-machine past and hit the vigilante trail, arousing the suspicion of a frustrated detective (a wan Emily Mortimer) who can't convince the higher-ups that their No. 1 suspect might be that nice upstanding Mr. Brown.

So far, so so-so.

In part, that's because screenwriter Gary Young and director Daniel Barber pretend to explore the root causes of the crime sprees that turn Harry Brown into an urban avenger. Yet all they're really doing is exploiting them.

In his feature debut, Barber displays a show-offy, sledgehammer visual style, contrasting Harry's steady, passive routine with the frenzied mayhem of the neighborhood thugs.

That's more than we can say for Young's screenplay, which never bothers to give any of the characters -- not even Harry -- dimension beyond barebones good-or-evil outlines.

As a result, it's up to the actors to provide whatever depth "Harry Brown" can muster.

Sometimes, it's more than the movie deserves.

In the movie's standout scene, Harry infiltrates the lair of the local drug -- and gun -- dealer (an electric Sean Harris), a walking cadaver whose tattoos and scars might scare anyone. Except, of course, for our Harry, whose righteous wrath is more than a match for any mere criminal scum.

Watching Caine build Harry's character, detail by subtle detail, remains the best -- and, often, the only -- reason for watching "Harry Brown."

Metamorphosing from quiet retiree to unstoppable avenger, Harry mournfully bids farewell to the warm, upstanding family man he used to be, reverting to the chilly killer he thought he had buried years before. He may be a reluctant warrior, but when there's a job to be done -- even a job as bloody as this one -- he's not the sort to shirk his duty.

If only "Harry Brown's" filmmakers had paid as much attention to their duty, we might have had a movie worthy of their protagonist -- and the consistently commanding actor who embodies him with such quiet but unmistakable flair.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.