Saturday, March 30, 2013

In Theaters/On VOD: WELCOME TO THE PUNCH (2013)

(US/UK - 2013)

Written and directed by Eran Creevy.  Cast: James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Andrea Riseborough, David Morrissey, Peter Mullan, Johnny Harris, Jason Flemyng, Ruth Sheen, Daniel Mays, Natasha Little, Daniel Kaluuya, Elyes Gabel. (Unrated, 96 mins)

It won't win any points for originality, but the lean, mean WELCOME TO THE PUNCH is a highly entertaining British cop thriller produced by Ridley Scott and directed by the promising Eran Creevy, who achieved some acclaim for his 2008 debut SHIFTY.  Creevy, a music video vet who cut his teeth as a production assistant on films by Matthew Vaughn (LAYER CAKE) and Danny Boyle (MILLIONS), is unquestionably a style-over-substance guy, as his script is pretty by-the-numbers with plot turns that barely twist, let alone surprise.  But while his script may lack the punch promised by the title, it's obvious that Creevy worships at the altar of Michael Mann--not just in the big HEAT influence on PUNCH, but also in its look and feel, with everything drenched in a cold, blue sheen that brings scenes from vintage Mann classics like THIEF and MANHUNTER to mind.  Like THE SWEENEY from a few weeks back, WELCOME TO THE PUNCH doesn't exactly forge a new path in the British crime genre, but it's diverting, well-acted, looks terrific, and doesn't try to be anything more than what it is.

Plays-by-his-own rules London detective Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) is obsessed with bringing down criminal kingpin Jacob Sternwood (the always-excellent Mark Strong).  The two come face to face in an underground tunnel, but Sternwood gets away after shooting Lewinsky in the knee.  Three years later, and a hobbling Lewinsky is now the kind of cop who wakes up with a hangover and has to drain the fluid from his knee several times a day, with a wiseass partner in fiery Sarah Hayes (Andrea Riseborough).  Meanwhile, a young man (Elyes Gabel) with a gunshot wound to the stomach causes a disturbance on an airport runway and it turns out he's Sternwood's son Ruan, who's been involved in a botched heist.  Sternwood has been in hiding in Iceland for three years, and with Ruan in the hospital, Lewinsky is convinced he'll try to come back to London to see him.  With the reluctant approval of police commissioner Geiger (David Morrissey), Lewinsky and Hayes stake out the hospital, and sure enough, Sternwood returns, but it turns out that Ruan was a pawn in a complicated chain of events that involve rampant corruption and backroom dealing and may (wait for it) lead all the way to the top of the department.  Once realizing they share a common enemy who's employed sociopathic ex-military man-turned-hired killer Warns (Johnny Harris), Lewinsky and Sternwood put aside their Sworn Enemy status, forming an uneasy alliance to work together to blow the lid off a secret that may extend all the way to the government...

...if they don't kill each other first!

Creevy stages a number of impressive sequences, starting with the exciting chase that opens the film.  There's also a memorable shootout in an empty nightclub, illuminated only by a bunch of rotating, spinning spotlights (don't look for a reason why...it just looks cool), and, in one of the few scenes that exhibit some creative writing, a tense encounter between a now-allied Lewinsky and Sternwood, accompanied by his gangland cohort Roy (Peter Mullan), and Warns, when Warns walks into the home of his sweet but dodderingly oblivious nan (Ruth Sheen) to find the other three already there waiting for him, his nan completely unaware that she's got a gun pointed to the back of her head.  Of course, all roads lead to a showdown at a shipping yard (the abandoned warehouse must've been locked up), and you'll see the big reveals coming long before they happen, but WELCOME TO THE PUNCH gets a lot from its lead actors, both of whom are excellent, and it's ultimately undemanding, check-your-brain-at-the-door fun that doesn't have any pretentious aspirations about being anything more than mainstream entertainment (plus it features one of the more crowd-pleasing shotgun-blasts-to-the-head you'll ever see).  Being distributed by IFC Films and featuring a cast of Brits automatically relegates it to a limited release arthouse run, but this is the kind of escapist flick that should be opening nationwide.


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