While Dixon of Dock Green would probably disagree, the original incarnation of The Sweeney is arguably the most iconic British cop show of all time.
Spun from writer Ian Kennedy Martin’s successful one-off ITV drama, Regan, the show revolved around the title’s DI Jack Regan (John Thaw) and his partner DS George Carter (Dennis Waterman) of the Metropolitan Police’s Flying Squad. Running for four seasons between 1975 and 1978, The Sweeney was a huge hit with audiences, even spawning two well-regarded big-screen adventures in 1977 and 1978.
With that success in mind, and with cinema’s current obsession with launching franchises based on pre-existing properties, the decision to remake The Sweeney is completely understandable. After all, even if modern audiences have never seen the original show, they’ll have definitely heard its name. And it’s the names that are pretty much all that have been kept in director Nick Love’s sloppy and reactionary remake of Kennedy Martin’s seminal show.
Starring Ray Winstone as Regan and Ben ‘Plan B’ Drew as Carter, Sweeney 2012 opens strongly as we’re thrown into the middle of a late night Flying Squad raid in London’s Docklands. With its soaring Michael Mann-like score, minimalist production design and swooping aerial shots of London it’s clear that director Love is trying to say: this isn’t your father’s Sweeney. And for the first few minutes this approach works, with Drew’s George Carter leading the operation impressively and engaging in some nimble and effective action that has real bite and muscle.
Unfortunately, all this good spade work is undone the moment Ray Winstone’s Regan is given his ‘iconic’ entrance, and it’s from this point on that the film takes a nosedive into cliché and parody from which it never recovers.
Lumbered with a screenplay – credited to Love and Shallow Grave scribe, John Hodge – that never develops a personality of its own, The Sweeney vaults from ripped-off set piece to ripped-off set piece, while the plot that lumbers between these moments is about as sophisticated as an episode of Ultimate Force.
Despite its pulpy tone and highly formulaic structure, the original Sweeney at least had its feet planted in a recognisable version of reality. However, this update seems to take place in a netherworld of mockney gangster riffs, football hooligan chic and a fetishisation of American TV and movies that’s at odds with both the milieu and the film’s budget.
Case in point is the film’s ‘reimagining’ of Jack Regan. Seemingly conceived as some sort of British Vic Mackey, instead Regan comes across as a hilarious fusion of Winstone’s ‘Raymondo’ character from his Bet365 adverts and The Fast Show’s Monkfish.
The fact that Winstone is both too old and too out of shape to convincingly play the part is actually an irrelevance. This Regan – who’s been turned into an unreconstructed, foul-mouthed, one-note thug – is D.O.A on the page. Weakening Regan’s character even further is his ill-defined and poorly handled relationship with Drew’s version of George Carter. In the original show, there was a real sense of camaraderie and even healthy competition between Thaw and Waterman, which was only strengthened by their differences in temperament, looks and background.
The massive age difference between Regan and Carter here works against this dynamic developing and – despite some retrofitting that sets up Regan as a kind of surrogate father to Carter – you never really believe these two men are friends. And that, deep down in the DNA of the film, is the fundamental problem with The Sweeney. You just don’t buy it.
While the original show was very much a product of its time and had a definite sense of place, this version manages to feel both out of touch with the period and lagging several years behind the broader streams of popular culture.
The retro-copper schtick was dealt with far better in both Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes, while even Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughan seemed to have twigged that the faux, low-budget hard-man theatrics of their early years have well and truly passed their sell by date.
Although the action beats are mildly entertaining, they’re both highly derivative and lacking in scale. In particular a ‘centerpiece’ bank-raid-turned-shoot-out – set in an oddly deserted Trafalgar Square – plays like a dubiously low-budget remounting of the same sequence in Michael Mann’s Heat. Even a big chase set in a Gravesend caravan park (yes, really!), has echoes of Hot Fuzz’s model-village set denouement to it.
However, despite the film’s failure, the notion of a remake of The Sweeney isn’t in itself a bad one. In fact, you need only watch the recent BBC series, The Line Of Duty to see that the world of dubious police practice is still fertile ground for drama and that – with the appropriate talent involved – this remake could well have worked.
If anything, the biggest frustration this film offers is that there’s the echo of a much better take on the material actually onscreen, albeit in the shape of supporting actors Steven Mackintosh, Damian Lewis and Hayley Atwell. All three performers bring much needed – yet sadly underused – class and intelligence to the production, and give us a glimpse at what a serious attempt at making The Sweeney work on-screen in the 21st century might well have looked like.
Unfortunately, the version we do get is sorely lacking in either.
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