McAvoy versus Strong in stylish British cop thriller.
Stylish crime thrillers featuring cops chasing robbers are ten-a-penny in today’s film world. Finding a British one though is considerably trickier, as stylish here is the operative word. Welcome to the Punch, the second feature from British writer/director Eran Creevy (after 2008’s Shifty) and produced by Ridley Scott’s production company, aims to address this issue with a crime caper that shows that a homegrown film can possess the same visual gloss as any Hollywood blockbuster.
Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) is a detective with an unhealthy, Ahab-like obsession with catching master thief and all-round bad-egg Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong). This relationship is established during the film’s prologue when Lewinsky fails to apprehend his target after a robbery and receives an agonizing gunshot wound to the leg for his trouble. Scarred mentally and physically and, as a result, ostracised amongst his department, we pick up the plot three years later when Sternwood breaks his self-imposed exile to come to the aid of his troubled son, giving Lewinsky a shot at retribution by finally taking him down. However, as this game of cat and mouse develops against a backdrop of shady dealings and political manoeuvring, both men realise (you guessed it) things aren’t exactly as black and white as they appear.
Firstly, make no mistake; Welcome to the Punch is one of the best-looking films set in dear-old-Blighty as you are likely to see. The action unfolds amongst the skyscrapers of London’s Docklands and the film takes its visual cues from such diverse sources as Internal Affairs to The Dark Knight. Nighttime photography, boasting plenty of cool metallic-blues and drifting urban-skyline panoramas, help create an ominous atmosphere for the dark world our characters inhabit. Given the tone of the movie and its subject matter, comparisons have unfavourably been made with Michael Mann’s Heat. And while Creevy’s film possesses nothing like the scope and depth of that genre-defining masterwork, it does tell its story with a skill and sheen seldom seen around these waters. Forget Big Ben and the London you find in postcards, this is wholly different affair.
Unfortunately, the attention to detail focussed on the look of the film is to the detriment of the script – something that Ridley Scott himself has often been accused of. The dialogue is workmanlike and the plot is neither particularly memorable nor original. For the first half of the film the characters seem to move from one plot point to the next in a way that feels forced rather than natural. The later stages of the film are better handled, but add to the mix a sense of absurdity as our characters’ motives and loyalties are questioned and changed in implausible ways.
Despite these shortcomings, Welcome to the Punch does on the whole manage to surmount them. Though predictable, the story unfolds confidently with a sense of urgency and determination, wrapping things up in about 100 minutes. This a welcome change of pace in a day and age when most directors struggle to deliver a film under two hours – even if it does leave the characters feeling a tad underwritten. James McAvoy’s Lewinsky suffers most from this – we never sympathise with him as intended – yet he manages to turn in a solid, if unremarkable performance. He is aided by able support from Andrea Riseborough, Peter Mullan and David Morrissey but the real star of the piece is Mark Strong. In what is fast becoming a regular occurrence, he easily steals every scene he is in with a nuanced performance of controlled, quiet intensity. Another high point is the excellent gun battles. Almost deafening at times they benefit from the same attention to detail as the film’s visuals, being sleek, kinetic and brutally efficient; they lend the film a hard edge that perfectly enhances its gritty tone.
In the end Welcome to the Punch strays perilously close to the old adage of style-over-substance. Yet through sheer bravado and self-assurance it manages to be wholly passable; and those not looking for too much depth will find it perfectly entertaining – even if they struggle to remember the details over the coming weeks. Ultimately it is less of a punch and more of a quick jab with little lasting effect.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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