On a grey February morning at Elstree film studios just outside London, the crew on the set of UK film Harry Brown are gearing up for a particularly harrowing scene. Michael Caine, on the other hand, is doing John Wayne impressions. It is appropriate, given the film is dubbed an “urban western”.

When the cameras roll, Caine slips effortlessly into character. He plays the title role, an ex-serviceman and widower living on a tough housing estate. The scene is a pivotal one - Brown is told by a detective, played by Emily Mortimer, that his best friend has been murdered by a gang of thugs. He decides to put his marine training into action and avenge his death.

The film has come together quickly: it was January 2008 when UK screenwriter Gary Young, whose credits include the low-budget Shooters and Spivs, first pitched the idea in a pub in Newcastle to producer Keith Bell, who worked on The Descent and Dog Soldiers.

‘A modern-day vigilante film’

“This time last year, Harry Brown was literally a one-line idea (to make a modern-day vigilante film looking at issues of “broken Britain”) and now we have almost finished shooting,” says Bell. “This film is a mirror on society as it is currently, and if we had waited a couple more years, it may not have had the same resonance.”

Harry Brown is Bell’s second project as lead producer following action film The Tournament, about an annual battle between the world’s deadliest assassins, which is being released in the UK later this year and is also co-written by Young.

Kris Thykier and Matthew Vaughn of Marv Films boarded the project after reading an early draft of the script. “I’d known Marv’s head of development, Charlie Mitchell, and we’d talked about a number of projects, so it was only a matter of time before we all worked together,” says Bell.

Thykier brought first-time feature director Daniel Barber on-board. A successful commercials director, Barber’s short film, Tonto Women, was nominated for an Oscar in 2008. “I had one meeting with Daniel, and I knew this was the guy to make the film,” says Bell. “He had a particular vision.

“As part of my masochistic nature as a UK-based film producer, I tend to work with first-time film-makers. Generally they are very focused on the job in hand.”

Michael Caine was the first choice to play Brown. He was impressed by the script, partly because he identified with the story of an ex-military man from a council estate, which mirrors his own background, and partly because he was impressed by the director. “Michael and I hit it off,” says Barber. “It is a great role for him. He is in 90% of the film. There are not many leading roles for men of 76.”

The rest of the cast includes a clutch of well-known young UK actors - Charlie Creed-Miles and Liam Cunningham - and up-and-coming names such as Ben Drew (who appeared in Adulthood), Jack O’Connell (best known from UK TV series Skins) and Sean Harris (who was in 24 Hour Party People).

Marv and Bell raised the project’s $7.3m (£5m) budget from the UK Film Council’s Premiere Fund, UK private film fund Prescience, Canadian bank Aver and visual-effects house Framestore. Prescience’s Tim Smith and Paul Brett and Framestore’s Steve Norris are executive producing. The film was able to take advantage of the UK tax credit, and Lionsgate UK has UK rights.

Star turn

“We’re looking at festivals towards the end of the year - Toronto, London, Sundance,” says Nick Manzi, head of acquisitions at Lionsgate.

He says it was a combination of “timely subject matter, a great team and director, and Michael Caine” which attracted Lionsgate to the project. “It’s very rare to get a British film of this scale with a star like Michael.”

As the crew wrap for lunch, Bell adds: “Daniel is going to be a real star. But don’t tell him that, because we don’t want him getting a big head and then going off to Hollywood.”