A small jaunt to Internet TV Mecca YouTube reveals that The Sweeney was originally a 1970s TV series in Britain; starring John Thaw and Dennis Waterman, the show even inspired two films before this one, Sweeney! and Sweeney 2 (which must not have been as exciting). The series, which apparently utilized a lot of dated decade fashion and chase sequences, also featured appearances from actors like John Rhys-Davies and John Hurt, among many others. It also marked one of the first appearances of now famous British actor Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast) who originally played “2nd Youth” on the series. Now, with this new version of The Sweeney, Winstone has been promoted to play Thaw’s top cop Regan.
A piece of Cockney slang that rhymes “Flying Squad” from “Sweeney Todd,” the Sweeney is a British police squad comprised of cops who execute justice according to their own moral standards. They use bats when taking on criminals; hang them over the side of tall buildings for questioning and more. The Sweeney is led by Winstone’s Regan, a gravelly bulldog with more gray hairs than anyone else on the team, who tutors them in the methods of brash police work. Regan has a couple dirty vices himself (like stealing goods from crime scenes, no big deal).
Regan is on a tight leash with his superior DCI Frank Haskins, played by Damian Lewis of Homeland. But he’s in even bigger trouble with vanilla wafer super boss DCI Evan Lewis (Steven Mackintosh) who would like nothing more than to destroy Regan. (It is worth noting that Regan gets his own “revenge” on Lewis by making recurrent whoopee with the boss’ wife, a fellow cop played by Hayley Atwell.)
Before being informed by a post-viewing conversation with Mr. Internet that The Sweeney is actually based on a TV series, the film already feels like it operates on the lower quality attributes of television. And worst of all, it doesn’t seem like we’re even watching the best episode from this faux show. In this episode, Regan and his team of cops are after all-star robber Francis Allen (Paul Anderson), a rich man with funny hair who is suspected of committing a robbery that left one person dead. However, Allen proves to be a dead end and thus … the Sweeney’s credibility is put to the test! And then there is justice! Chases! “You’ve been nicked!”
The Sweeney has huge chunks that register like they’d be better in a disposable hourly cop drama, requiring an attention span that competes with the execution of household chores, than in a feature film that desires actual focus. The supporting characters in the cop group of the Sweeney are barely given any light, so the idea of caring about their fate during group missions is essentially a nonexistent factor in such a limited amount of time. The only inherently cinematic element of this movie is its score, which borrows from the brassy “Brahmmms” of Hans Zimmer, which can essentially be heard in any other modern action movie as well.
However special The Sweeney might have been on television during its days of release, those roots have spawned a generic cop movie. This is one messy film that is unsure of what it wants its focus to be and jerks the viewer around to different moods. Is it about the actual Sweeney? Is it about bank robberies? Is it a vengeance movie? Who’s even the lead bad guy? Such questions affect the curiosity desired by the movie’s plot; this is a winding investigation that provides no appealing reason to seek out the truth.
In the beginning of the film, it appears as if The Sweeney wants to be about the entire group, like Polisse, a great French film about cops in Paris that played at Cannes in 2011. But this changes when Regan starts taking on a vigilante stance, getting the main focus and meeting people on rooftops the way only Batman and James Bond do. From here, the film touches on many different tones, as if it were trying to cross off a checklist of elements that span the action subgenre. Prison scene, check. Big chase scene (and the film’s best) with multiple sets and civilian danger that causes the film to climax too early? Check. Making it personal (in which Winstone says, “You tell him I’m coming after him”)? Check.
It doesn’t help that the script, when it does focus on its title group of cops, functions at the same speed of its dimwitted protagonists. These paid officials of the law are much slower to catch the twist than the film’s audience, who are left impatiently waiting for another chase scene. On top of this, some of them wear bulletproof vests and some conveniently don’t.
Possibly the oddest element of The Sweeney is Winstone’s prominent presence, without any explanation as to why he specifically should be here, especially if a viewer is unaware of the Regan character at all. Winstone’s status in the movie amongst a group of young coed cops feels like it is the only spice this movie can offer; sure, this is another movie about a police group, but this one is different; it’s led by an older guy! But this is not any regular older guy, this is Ray Winstone, you know, the shirtless guy from Sexy Beast.
The inclusion of an older character in this storyline is confusing as to whether or not it is necessary. Essentially, there is no real reason for this guy to be played by a distinctively older actor, especially when this movie only makes one reference to him being “a dinosaur.” Winstone’s appearance in the movie is distracting. Not that he’s out of place, but that there just isn’t a big enough reason for his large presence to be there. Jason Statham with fifty pounds and some gray spay paint on his bald head could fill this role no problem.
At the same time, The Sweeney is admittedly slightly comforting in this new trend of older Hollywood actors taking top action leads. The Sweeney is different from recent films like Bullet to the Head or even A Good Day to Die Hard, in that it doesn’t turn its older man lead into a joke (or an unintentional joke, as with Sylvester Stallone’s Bullet to the Head). He doesn’t live on nostalgia and he even knows how to use a printer. Progress.
One has to wonder why we are watching this thoroughly British import in the first place. Has Anglophilia caused this? Did my parents viewing Downton Abbey every week bring over this film based on a series that is a ghost in the good ol’ U.S. of A.? There’s certainly a trend with this film and other American films, which might explain The Sweeney’s giddiness to be all of them at once. The Sweeney fits into a trend of people disillusioned with proper justice, possibly as they had been when Dirty Harry had to turn in Scorpio in 1971. The American multiplex seems to constantly be full of people who take the law into their own hands; and like those in The Sweeney, even when they are the police who would be called, they don’t act like any regular badge-carrying cops. (Films under this description even in the past few months range from The Watch to Jack Reacher to Gangster Squad.)
However, this messy film brings to mind a different battle between good and evil. We live in a time of strife and we need our heroes. And by that overdramatic usage of the word “heroes” I of course mean film screenplays that stand courageously proud against the rising tide of television; stories that actually make a proud case to be cinematic experiences first and foremost, while showing that television could not do such a script justice. These are the type of scripts that remind viewers that if a story chooses film as its medium, then it should feel look like a movie and sound like a movie. A film should not look like television, dammit.
However small a victory The Sweeney is for television’s cause of being a better medium for storytelling, it is still a sad loss for film. This is especially the case regarding The Sweeney’s roots as a television show that was shot on film (y’know, like movies do or used to, RIP) to achieve a raw quality to its aesthetic. Now, the bullet holes here don’t even look believable in this adaptation with a heavily mistaken sense of slickness; this film is bad TV.
Perhaps The Sweeney will be best on VOD, a sort of loophole in the question of whether some film scripts should just go to television. Even then, the film provides questionable enjoyment for Anglophiles, especially those hopped up on imported BBC shows. At best, The Sweeney is most memorable as a strong and humbling reminder that Brits make junky TV adaptations too.