The James Clayton Column: Welcome to the punchy title

Feature James Clayton 15 Mar 2013 - 06:38

With Welcome To The Punch's striking title in mind, James offers some more interesting film names for recent hits...

Welcome To The Punch. Boom. That is a brilliant film title. It hits you and it hits you hard. It’s an inviting knuckle sandwich to your conscious awareness and its five syllables sucker punch you and say, “Yeah, now you know me. You are watching this film, sunshine.”

Imprinted indelibly on my memory right from the first mention, how could I not follow it up and discover what mysteries lie behind the bombastic moniker? It immediately impresses me with its shocking violence and promises brutal action, intense energy and all the other sadomasochistic kicks I crave in my cinema trips. Welcome To The Punch speaks directly to my psyche and is sold to my subconscious in only four words.

Getting beyond the gut-busting first impression, here’s what Welcome To The Punch has aside from a nice title (these are the really important parts that make the film more than merely a geektastic gimmick name). The second film from British writer-director Eran Creevy is set in London and centres around the clash between dogged detective James McAvoy and boss criminal Mark Strong who’s returning to home turf after exile in Iceland.

Acknowledging the acting talent involved and appreciating the movie’s look as shown in the trailer - slick cinematography and action sweeping through the stylised glass-and-steel modern metropolis - the affair evinces a certain classiness. A movie titled Welcome To The Punch could, in truth, be a direct-to-DVD snuff film about mud-wrestling on an allotment in Llandudno. It also sounds a little like an ill-fitting translation given to an Asian martial arts flick that originally had a sophisticated, arty name referencing haute cuisine or spiritual concepts. (This happens to every Tony Jaa Muay Thai film.)

Marketing materials have guided my mind, however, and led me to a corrected view that Welcome To The Punch is an urban crime thriller with high-quality production values and impressive credentials. I’d still have been interested if it was a grubby cinéma vérité thrasher about Welsh mud-wrestlers, but contemplating the actual nature of the movie and all its compositional elements, I’m even more excited about something that has the potential to be an exceptional genre piece.

The premise of Welcome To The Punch leads me to recall a range of classic crime movies that pit tenacious tough guys against each other for a tense and stylish law-on-outlaw showdown. In particular, partly because of all the blue lighting, I’m thinking about Michael Mann’s Heat.

Welcome To The Punch certainly appears to be following the 1995 film’s example, and operating as its British counterpart by smashing two of the country’s top contemporary male actors into each other for a cop-on-crook clash. Heat, of course, marked the first on-screen encounter of American screen icons Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as detective Vincent Hanna and criminal Neil McCauley respectively. It’s testament to the actors’ brilliance and the quality of Mann’s signature movie that it has a legacy and transcends what is, in truth, a pretty weak, problematic title.

“But it burns with scorching intensity and references slang for police pressure while evoking the exciting friction generated by the two star leads!” you might say, and I’d agree, but others might not catch that vibe.

Heat is ambiguous, and ambiguity can be appealing, but sometimes it isn’t ideal. In theory, Heat could be a film about extreme weather conditions or a raging inferno. It could be a biopic of Miami’s basketball team. It could be an erotic horror thriller about a female were-dog’s disturbing mating season experiences.

The uninitiated may have issues with the handle. Remember how some cinemagoers got antsy about Drive and didn’t appreciate that it was a violent modern romantic fairytale, a transcendental arthouse action film and meditation on human motivations rather than a straight-up film about cars? They wouldn’t have had a problem if it’d been called something like ‘Kiss of the Scorpion’ or ‘Los Angeles Neon Knight’ (my preferred invented titles for a masterpiece that doesn’t deserve to be hated on because a few fools misread promotional paraphernalia and wanted it to be like The Fast And The Furious).

These curt, vague titles are also awkward when you start attempting to drop them into conversation. Compare “Do you wanna watch Heat?” to “Do you wanna watch Welcome To The Punch?” and you might see what I mean. I put it to you that in a Zhang Yimou film face-off more people would pick House Of Flying Daggers over Hero simply because it has a more interesting title. A catchy, unforgettably complicated or ludicrous moniker of multiple words will always have the advantage over a single worded title without much about it.

Hence my idealised scenario where Heat is retitled ‘Miami Man-on-Man’ - or ‘Mann’s Miami Man-on-Man’ - for future re-releases. If it had lacked the ‘Bobby Meets Al’ unique selling point, I’m willing to bet that far fewer people would have seen it in cinemas back in 1995. Likewise, Welcome To The Punch will have higher box office figures than it would have done if it’d been named something like ‘Homecoming’ or ‘Stubborn’.

Underwhelming titles can do damage, and the recent filmography of cult actor Nicolas Cage proves this to me personally. I love watching Cage, but can’t even be bothered watching movies like Next, Knowing, Justice and Trespass because their names are so damn dull and uninspiring. Is Cage’s new release Stolen a priority to see at the cinema? If it’s up against movies with titles like John Dies At The End and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, the answer is no.

In my opinion too many solid films and spectacular film personalities are being hampered by uninspired, inert titles that fail to capture the essential content and crackling energy that lies within the frames. Character names and hyper-creative ridiculous exceptions aside, I believe that the trend of giving movies unspecific or generic monosyllabic or duo-syllabic titles needs to end.

What follows is a list of recent releases that exemplify my argument along with my own alternate titles. They may be silly, but silly is better than stale, dishonest and dreary...

Lockout

Guy Pearce is a cigarette-smoking, muscled old-school anti-hero named Marion Snow.  He’s been sent into space to save the President’s daughter who’s trapped on an orbiting maximum security facility satellite that’s been taken over by rioting inmates. It’s quite possibly the greatest premise for a movie ever, but it’s underwhelmed by a pedestrian title that describes the opposite of what is actually happening in the story (it’s more ‘Locked In’ than Lockout). This fun celestial prison thriller should have a handle that’s as gloriously out-there as the concept.

Alternate titles: ‘Escape from the Space Penitentiary’; ‘Off-Planet Prison Break’; ‘Snow Beyond the Stratosphere’; ‘Marion Snow: Extraterrestrial Rescue’.

Safe

I like to think that Jason Statham is the antithesis of safe. It doesn’t matter if the title of this action flick references the plot which has him protecting a mathematical wunderkind with a secret code committed to her memory from multiple baddies (Russian gangsters, Chinese Triads, corrupt NYC cops, etc). Safe just isn’t an appropriate word to place anywhere near the Stath, and it’s a lame name for a gripping action thriller with a unique twist anyway.

Alternate titles: ‘Stath, Math and Many Bleedin’ Mobsters’; ‘Beat ‘Em Up, Babysitter! Kill! Kill!’; ‘New York City Number Games’; ‘Little  Girl, Big Trouble’.

Unknown

I see the name Unknown and view it as a lazy abbreviation of ‘Untitled Liam Neeson Euro-Thriller Project’. To be fair, Unknown might relate to the protagonist Dr Martin Harris’ confusion about his own identity or the obscure conspiratorial forces around him that refuse to allow him to be the Dr Martin Harris he believes himself to be. I’m not convinced though: it’s an indistinguishable moniker that doesn’t really stick to anything or effectively capture the possible enjoyment of this amnesiac espionage thriller.

Alternate titles: ‘Taken: Identity’; ‘Liam Neeson’s Who Am I?’; ‘Honey! Don’t You Know Me?’; ‘The Grey Areas of Memory’.

Flight

Robert Zemeckis’ powerful return to live-action moviemaking has an albatross around its neck, and it’s the inaccurate title. It suggests an optimistic ascendance and a lot of time spent in the clouds, but it’s actually an incredibly grounded, compelling chronicle of addiction and self-destruction portrayed by the ever-charismatic Denzel Washington. It’s not conventionally uplifting, for it’s a movie centred around an alcoholic pilot trying to handle questions around a plane crash and his personal character. For its nuance, its gravity and the fact that it has Denzel Washington getting high on cocaine before flipping a jet upside down, it deserves so much more than a tedious, trite title.

Alternate titles: ‘High and Dry’; ‘The Ballad of Whip Whitaker, Badass Captain Booze Cruise’; ‘Turbulent Conditions’; ‘Broken Wings’.

They are all more accurate and interesting than the actual titles and more in the spirit of Welcome To The Punch. I just hope that the trailer isn’t lying to us and setting us up for a surprise cinéma vérité experience in which James McAvoy and Mark Strong do nothing but watch Welsh mud-wrestling on TV for 90 minutes.

James Clayton is set to star in ‘Thanks for the Thunder-Fist Flurry’ but meddling studio suits with no sense of creative flair will inevitably end up re-titling it ‘Beaten’. You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.

You can read his previous column here.

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