Michael Caine is one of the greatest, most dynamic actors of all time. The 88-year-old South Londoner has done pretty much everything. After getting his breakout role in the 1964 war epic Zulu, Caine’s leading roles ran the gamut from an elevated rom-com (Alfie or Educating Rita) to a recurring franchise (The Ipcress Files), a comedy classic (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), a medieval epic (The Man Who Would Be King), a star-powered mystery (Sleuth), action movies both silly (The Italian Job) and serious (Get Carter), and even the best human performance ever in a Muppet movie. Given Caine’s versatility, it’s hard to choose just one role as his singular defining part; his adaptability made him a familiar face across decades, and now younger viewers know him as the older guy in all of those Christopher Nolan movies. However, Caine gave two excellent “career-defining” late-stage performances in 2009’s Harry Brown and 2015’s Youth. The two films show sides of the reflective star vehicle that highlight different aspects of his career: the grizzled action star and the classical artist. Despite being totally distinct, both films hint at similar ideas about the consequence of living to see one’s legacy. An unusual double feature sheds insight on why Caine remains a towering force within cinema.
Harry Brown is a maturation of the action hero; Caine has often appeared as military service members and gives the titular retired veteran authenticity. While Harry Brown may have once been a decorated hero of the Royal Marines, any notability he gained in younger years has passed. Even the grizzled Harry is shocked by the new breed of violence that permeates the streets of modern London. He’s not able to visit his dying wife’s hospital bedside, fearful of passing through an underpass where a particularly nasty gang operates. It’s not the same conflict he saw in the service; “To them out there, this is just entertainment,” he comments.
After using a bayonet to protect himself in self-defense, Harry decides he’s had enough and becomes a vigilante. The “old man action movie” isn’t a new trend (albeit they’re usually not with a 76-year-old), but Harry Brown isn’t a parody. Harry is responding to a dysfunctional system that’s all but forgotten about him, and there’s a sadness in seeing him realize he’s still forced to be the administer of justice. Instead of playing up the novelty, Caine finds the misery in realizing that any past heroism his generation achieved never solved anything.
Youth develops similar melancholic themes of an older man reflecting on his life’s work. Caine stars as retired composer Fred Ballinger, who enjoys a luxurious vacation in the Swiss Alps with his best friend, acclaimed filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). Ballinger is asked by an emissary of the Queen to perform his masterwork “Simple Song #3” at a birthday ceremony for Prince Phillip. It’s a song Ballinger is unable to ever perform again; the original vocals were that of his wife, who suffers from dementia and can no longer sing. Even with all of his wealth and awards, Ballinger is haunted by the years he ignored her, abandoning his senile lover to a care facility in Venice.
If Harry Brown’s protagonist is trying to fix the system he helped build, Ballinger has to watch his life’s work evaporate before his eyes. His daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) is victim to emotional trauma from her parents’ failed marriage, Mick leaps to his death as he helplessly watches, and he recognizes his own pretensions through the eccentric characters at the Weisen. (Including a particularly amusing Paul Dano as a method actor,) As his memories deplete and he’s unable to even cite all the past sins he knows should be accounted for, Ballinger realizes it’s too late to make amends. “I was thinking about all the thousands of little things that I’ve done for her,” he says, watching Lena sleep. “In time, she won’t remember a single thing.”
Although Harry Brown has a lot more hunting for drug dealers and Youth is a lot of quiet conversations in the countryside, both films see Caine bringing a mature grace in recognizing his own failings. While neither film calls to mind a specific past role (John Wayne’s swan song The Shootist saw him giving a last hurrah to his specific archetype, for example), there are elements of his entire body of work within the duo. Traces of the romantic charmer, the war hero, the sensitive artist, the no-nonsense vigilante, and the indulgent male are scattered across both films.
The odd double feature speaks to Caine’s continued dexterity, because both are subversions of traditional genre constraints. Harry Brown is a real downer for what could’ve been nothing other than geriatric Death Wish, but Caine still feels believable wielding a gun and delivering one-liners. Youth is a really, really weird movie where Paul Dano dons a Hitler persona and monks are levitating, but the outrageous surrealism culminates profoundly as Ballinger conducts an imagined symphony of all his past muses.
Caine has a slew of upcoming projects and his recent output is impressive, but The Last Witch Hunter or a five-minute cameo in Tenet don’t rank among the roles he’s best remembered for. Harry Brown and Youth might be contenders. By showing a male sensitivity within dynamic genre pieces, Caine exemplified his enduring evolution.
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