By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com March 11, 2013 at 11:19AM
The terms "British cinema" and "action movie" tend not to go together particularly well. Maybe it's the smaller budgets at play, maybe it's an awareness that our American and Asian cousins do it better, maybe it's cultural -- most British cops don't carry weapons, for example. It's not that it hasn't been tried, it's more that the examples we do have -- "The 51st State," "Centurion," "The Sweeney" -- tend to be bad enough to dissuade too many others from giving it a shot, and so the idea of an action movie set in the U.K. remains incongruous enough that it can form the central joke of an entire film, like Edgar Wright's "Hot Fuzz."
But that might all be about to change, thanks to "Welcome To The Punch." Produced by Ridley Scott, marking the second film from Eran Creevy (who was behind the excellent and underrated "Shifty") and featuring a top-notch cast of Britain's finest, it's an atypically glossy and ambitious take on the U.K. crime flick. And it's one that works far better than it has any right to, cementing Creevy as someone who's likely to follow people like Christopher Nolan and Rupert Wyatt into the big time any day now.
When the film opens, career criminal Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong) and his right-hand man Roy (Peter Mullan) are pulling off a heist, the one that'll allow them to retire. Dogged cop Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) is hot on their tail, and almost gets the best of Sternwood, but ends up without his man, who flees to exile in Iceland, leaving Max with a bullet in his kneecap for the trouble. Years later, with a political debate looming about a proposal to arm more of the police, Sternwood's son (Elyes Gabel) is found by the police at the airport, near dead from a bullet wound. Max, whose career has hit the skids after his injury, along with partner Sarah (Andrea Riseborough) and superior Thomas Geiger (David Morrissey), suspect that Sternwood will come back to the country for his offspring, and they'll finally see their chance to nab him. But things turn out to be much, much more complicated than that.
From the opening frames -- a nifty credits sequence, which blends seamlessly and cannily into the opening heist, all accompanied by Harry Escott's excellent Hans Zimmer-esque score -- it's clear that "Welcome To The Punch" is a work of almost preternatural confidence. Throwing you right into the plot without messing around, Creevy and DoP Ed Wild (who's going to get a lot of work off this) shoot London like Roger Deakins shot "Skyfall" in Shanghai -- neon-flecked, high-contrast, and absolutely gorgeously. And the opening chase scene, while brief, is thrilling, tautly putting clarity above everything else.
And this sets the tone pretty well for what follows. The film moves like a rocket, Creevy laying out his engagingly complex plot in a lean 100 minutes that aren't boring for even a second. It's beautiful throughout, with the filmmaker showing he has an impressive eye, and the action sequences -- mostly gunfights to one degree or another, and influenced principally by Asian action cinema -- are well choreographed, aesthetically pleasing, and properly exciting.
Perhaps crucially, while it's somewhat stylized, 'Punch' keeps a toe in the real world, and it even feels plausible that it could be taking place in Britain (in fact, there's a smart, wry dichotomy in the way that it's a gun-toting actioner where *minor spoiler* the villains' plot involves getting more guns onto the street). And this is indicative of the film in general -- it's never simply dumb action for the sake of action. While Creevy has namechecked Tony Scott and John Woo as influences, you can also feel the DNA of Michael Mann, and of '70s political thrillers, in the mix. And yet it also manages to stop short of becoming a slave to those inspirations.
Something has to give, inevitably, and in this case it's the amount of time given to the characters. Most are written with just enough of a twist to make them more than archetypes, and the cast are unsurprisingly strong. McAvoy's wounded, prideful copper, Riseborough as his accomplished, self-assured partner, Strong's unsurprisingly effective screen presence as the hyper-accomplished thief with a code, and Morrissey's morally nebulous chief are all solid, with Mullan's wry and loyal right-hand man and Johnny Harris ("Snow White & The Huntsman") as a genuinely fearsome gun-for-hire being particular standouts.
But while Creevy can be effective at sketching out a lot with a little (you know everything you need to about the relationship between Max and Sarah with only a couple of lingering glances), you can't help but wish that it was bit less minimalist in places. Strong's character in particular remains a bit of an enigma, and Riseborough gets short shrift in terms of the screentime; they could each have done with another scene or two to round them out. Especially as Creevy's scenes tend to be so potent. There's a number of very good set pieces, from a desperate gunfight in a bar to a tense confrontation featuring a great cameo from "Another Year" star Ruth Sheen.
There are a couple of other smaller complaints. In places, especially early on, the dialogue can be a touch clunky or cliched, and the ending feels a touch abrupt, if only because you've been enjoying what's come before so much. But they are ultimately minimal issues. For most of the run-time, "Welcome To The Punch" is thrillingly cinematic, beautifully made, smarter and funnier than you'd expect, and a phenomenal showcase for Creevy and his team. See it now, so you can bore everyone else with how you were there first when Creevy is off making $200 million blockbusters. [B+]
"Welcome To The Punch" opens in the UK on Friday, March 15th and hits U.S. theaters on Wednesday March 27th. It will be available on VOD starting March 30th.