If you’ve ever wondered what a John Woo movie might look like if it were shot in London, then the Brit action thriller Welcome To The Punch provides the long-overdue answer – this is heroic bloodshed: docklands edition.
Stylishly directed by Eran Creevy, Welcome To The Punch stars James McAvoy as maverick cop Max Lewinsky, who’s hot on the trail of rock-hard, motorbike-riding gangster Jacob Sternwood (a typically formidable Mark Strong). Three years after Jacob leaves Max crippled during a high-octane post-heist getaway, the former’s back in London town to settle old scores – namely, the shooting of his young son (played by Elyes Gabel, who looks distractingly like Ralph Macchio circa 1984), which has something to do with crooked cops, cargo containers and gun smuggling. Max, meanwhile, is determined to bring down the perp who injured him three years earlier, and limps around the capital with battered pride, a handgun and a swollen knee.
McAvoy and Strong are joined by a supporting line-up which reads like a must-have list of the UK’s finest; Andrea Riseborough plays McAvoy’s side-kick, who has a habit of writing plot points down on her hands like Guy Pearce in Memento. Peter Mullan appears as a used car salesman and Strong’s bearded partner in crime. David Morrissey, Daniel Kaluuya and Daniel Mays show up as assorted lawmen, while such familiar faces as Steve Oram (Sightseers) and Jason Flemyng are frittered away in two-line bit parts.
The quality of this cast and its collective ability to recite the script without breaking into fits of laughter is perhaps the film’s saving grace; although Creevy’s screenplay and direction is clearly influenced by films such as The Dark Knight and Michael Mann’s Heat, with Jacob written as the criminal flipside to Max’s grimly determined detective, the deadly seriousness of the direction is constantly undercut by the dialogue, which copies all sorts of familiar lines out of the big book of cop thriller cliches.
McAvoy’s oddly cast, too, as the leading hard-nut; he’s pumped his muscles and cultivated his facial hair, but he seems ill at ease with the kind of laconic, unreconstructed gruffness that a character like Max requires; his is an odd sort of action protagonist, with his dodgy leg letting him down at the most inopportune times, and he spends an inordinate amount of the film lying on the floor and screaming theatrically. (Though paradoxically, Max, like his videogame namesake Max Payne, is also quite able to fling himself athletically over bits of scenery as the plot requires.)
As a thriller, Welcome To The Punch’s constituent parts don’t really hang together. There’s a vague anti-gun message lurking in here somewhere, which is undercut somewhat by the repeated scenes of actors fondling and caressing guns, or lovingly-lit shots of firearms bathed in cool light, like prizes on an afternoon gameshow. Its twists of fortune are also fairly easy to predict, and it’s likely that audiences will have cottoned on to the identities of at least one villain long before the detectives manage to.
View Welcome To The Punch as an action parody, however, and everything suddenly snaps into focus. As a cop comedy, it’s up there with Hot Fuzz or, to a lesser extent, The Other Guys – though it’s seldom clear whether anyone involved realised just how funny the film they were making would ultimately turn out. Just about every police action thriller plot beat is appropriated in a remarkably compact 90-or-so minutes. A maverick cop who’s in too deep? Check. A career criminal who lives by his own warped moral code? Present. And just as Hot Fuzz (or, thinking about it, John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard) relocated the cop thriller to amusing effect, so Welcome To The Punch places a machine gun-crazy genre flick in various parts of London – hotel rooms, clubs, self-storage facilities – with occasionally side-splitting results.
By the time a slow-motion action sequence set among the crochet dolls and Royal Doulton ornamental plates of an elderly woman takes place, you do start to wonder whether Creevy’s in on the joke. Could this be the slyest cop parody of all time? Quite possibly. And when the origin of the film’s offbeat, Elmore Leonard-type title is revealed, it’s almost worth a minor ripple of applause.
It helps, too, that Creevy’s a very good director of action sequences. There’s nothing here approaching Woo’s The Killer, say, but the handful of trigger-happy moments pack a meaty, gutsy thwack, helped along by some properly aggressive sound design and crisp, unfussy editing. This is a Scott Free production, and something approaching Sir Ridley’s slick cinematic eye is frequently in evidence – it’s a good-looking film even for its relatively modest $8.5 million budget, the bizarrely out-of-place septuagenarian shoot-out scene notwithstanding.
The past few years have seen various directors attempt to make the Great British action picture with middling results. The big-screen remake of The Sweeney was a toe-curling effort; Blitz, the violent bromance starring Jason Statham and Paddy Considine, just about got by on goofy charm alone. Welcome To The Punch, almost in spite of itself, is a harebrained, hilariously earnest slab of macho action. It falls well short of being a cool-Britannia clone of Heat, but it’s hard to deny its unfailing ability to entertain.
Welcome To The Punch opens on 11th March in the UK.
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