Welcome to the Punch review

A brave stab at a fully-British action film, Welcome to the Punch is an ambitious step forward from writer/director Creevy’s first feature, 2008’s Shifty. Made on a minuscule £100,000 budget under Film London’s Microwave scheme, Shifty was a dialogue and performance heavy film set in a socially realistic suburban environment. Although a poor marketing campaign lumped in with the glut of "urban" dramas popular in the wake of Kidulthood, Shifty was clearly the debut of a director to watch. Although his second feature is significantly flawed, WTTP firmly puts Creevy on the map as a rising star in UK film.

Using nighttime Canary Wharf locations to create a shimmering high-tech vision of London, WTTP kicks off at blistering pace as a group of suited and booted criminals, led by ruthless master mind Jacob Sternwood (Strong), tear up the streets around Canada Square on motorbike. They are pursued by Max Lewinsky (McAvoy), a single-minded cop determined to take Sternwood down. However, the criminals are better equipped, armed and co-ordinated than our boys in blue (the only Cannon and Ball reference I will make in this review) and disappear, leaving a badly injured Lewinsky in their dust.

Some years later, a chance set of circumstances bring Sternwood back to London. Lewinsky, now a rather damaged man, finds his passions reinvigorated. But are they for justice or revenge? Clearly a reckoning is on the cards, but there are other nefarious forces at work. Will Lewinsky be able to see through the red mist of his rage, to find out what’s really going on behind the scenes?

British cinema has long had a tradition of gangster films – Brighton Rock, Performance, Get Carter, The Long Good Friday and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels being among the highlights (I don’t need to run through the lowlights, do I?). While the gangster film is thought of as primarily a Hollywood genre, these examples are all films that brought a distinctly British flavour. However, we have never been particularly successful at bringing the US style of cop movie to the UK. Placed next to Riggs and Murtaugh, Dixon of Dock Green is a little dull.

And yet the cop thriller suddenly seems to be experiencing a revival in the UK. Things kicked off with Blitz and The Sweeney, and 2013 is to bring us Blood, Filth and Welcome to the Punch. Whether this is sheer coincidence, or whether British audiences are ready to embrace a more action-led national cinema, only time will tell. But the box office fate of WTTP may hold the key.

If there is an issue that keeps WTTP from being truly satisfying it is that unlike the gangster films mentioned, it never really manages to feel British. Creevy tries really hard, but as soon as the guns come out and the screen explodes in mayhem, it just doesn’t feel like cricket, old boy. There is a problem of authenticity when any British film introduces significant gunplay in anything but a fantasy or military context. It is just not something that we are culturally attuned to. James Bond is very much the exception that proves the rule.

Perhaps this is why our coppers seem far more at home on television than the big screen. British TV cop shows foreground cerebral, and somewhat sedate detectives and focus on the procedural. Yet we have a rich tradition of detective fiction that we could draw on (also the TV version of Rebus is crap, can we have a film instead please?)

In order to break out of this, Creevy looks abroad for inspiration to both West and East. From the East he finds inspiration in the action cinema of Hong Kong – although it is the cooler well of Johnnie To or Alan Mak/Felix Chong rather than the John Woo heroic bloodshed films of the eighties/nineties from which it draws water. The nighttime look is clearly inspired by Mann’s Collateral, the primary colour of the film is blue, the plot directly invokes the spectre of Heat. However, Heat had a three-hour running time to build up layer upon layer of characterisation around its cop/criminal face off. WTTP tries to do this over a much shorter running time and is shallow by comparison. Strong’s character in particular is ill defined. Is he a bank robber or a terrorist? It isn’t clear. Sure bank robbers can occasionally become notorious, a la Ronnie Biggs, but the authorities in WTTP react to news that Sternberg is in London, in a way I would imaging Rudolph Giuliani would have reacted had he been told Osama Bin Laden was spotted at the Met Opera.

The film is greatly enhanced by its cast. McEvoy is refreshingly different from the usual action hero template, with his slim frame and youthful looks, but he’s a good actor and he sells us Lewinsky’s sunken-eyed desperation. Strong seems effortlessly cool as the apparent villain of the piece – where Lewinsky is fire, Sternberg is ice. Support comes from Riseborough as Lewinsky’s more level-headed partner, and Mullan as a former criminal associate of Sternberg trying to go it straight. Morrissey is a little wasted playing basically the same role he did in Blitz.

Creevy is perhaps concentrating so hard on getting the style and the look right that the heart of the film feels undernourished. However, his shootouts are well mounted and he proves his mettle as an action director here. I just hope that for his third film he finds a vehicle that allows him to combine the heart of Shifty with the style of WTTP then we are in for something really special.

Ultimately, Welcome to the Punch is a noble effort, and it takes ambition to get this type of movie made in the UK rather than yet another period-set literary adaptation.  A qualified success, but a success nonetheless.

Welcome to the Punch at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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