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An order of tea and WHOOP-ASS! “Welcome to the Punch”

January 12, 2014

Welcome To The Punch

There is a lot to thank the UK for—James Bond, Doctor Who, Thandie Newton—but their most recent contribution to the Western world has to be the revival of the totally-unironic tough-cop genre. TV shows like Luther and movies like Welcome to the Punch feature totally absurd action setpieces and the hoariest of cop-movie clichés, all played totally straight. It’s as if the British crime thriller has finally caught up to Tango and Cash. These stories aren’t good by any stretch of the imagination, but they do have a retro charm—something on full display with Punch.

The movie begins in situ, as Mark Strong’s icy criminal Jacob Sternwood and his gang have just pulled off a daring late-night robbery that entailed smoke business suits, smoke grenades, and a getaway on crotch-rockets. Ah, but hot on their trail is loose-cannon detective (inspector? constable? I’m not really sure about position titles in the Metropolitan Police Department)  Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy), and he tears through the completely-empty streets of London in his BMW. Lewinsky’s supervisors are screaming over the radio for him to break off pursuit, but those aren’t the rules Max Lewinsky plays by, baby. Unfortunately, when he confronts Sternwood he finds himself hopelessly outclassed—by which I mean that Lewinsky is armed with a pipe and Sternwood has a Beretta, which he uses to shoot out one of Lewinsky’s legs and get away.

Policing looks classier in England.

Policing looks classier in England.

Flash-forward three years and Sternwood’s son, suffering from a gunshot wound, makes a frantic call to his father, now living in exile in Iceland. The son is handily apprehended, and Sternwood heads back to London to help his son. This news of great interest to Lewinsky, who is still a detective, but now nurses a bum leg he must drain daily and isn’t quite 100% For that matter, neither is Lewinsky who has become a burned-out shell of his former self after the humiliation of losing Sternwood.

The prospect of nailing Sternwood reanimates Lewinsky and stokes the fires of hatred in his heart. While his partner, Hawks (Andrea Riseborough), tries to pull him from the brink of self-destruction, Lewinsky is set on plowing ahead and using Sternwood’s now-hospitalized son as bait in a trap. Lewinsky’s hothead ways aren’t much appreciated by his precinct captain (leftenant?), but the commissioner (superintendent? Brigadier?) Thomas Geiger (David Morrissey) indulges his hothead ways.

"Now, when you shoot him you're going to need a good catch phrase to say after you do it. Or before."

“Now, when you shoot him you’re going to need a good catch phrase to say after you do it. Or before.”

That, however, is just setup. Reconnecting with his underworld pals, Sternwood discovers that his son’s shooting was random, but is connected to the fatal killing of another young man, whose death is making headlines as an emblem of the rising gun violence in London. This issue is central to Geiger’s election campaign (for, uh, Mayor? Duke? Emperor?) one of the campaign promises is the matter of arming all police officers in London. Sternwood and Lewinsky follow up on their respective investigations, until they ultimately dovetail, and cop and criminal must join forces to confront a larger evil.

It's like every one of my family's Thanksgiving ever...

It’s like every one of my family’s Thanksgiving ever…

The above synopsis, though, doesn’t give Welcome to the Punch is due as an over-the-top action movie. For that you need to get a load of McAvoy’s performance as a “don’t-give-a-shit” cop, bent on revenge (which, it should be pointed out, seems somewhat disproportionate to the incident—Sternwood shot him in the leg, not the wife), limping with furious purpose, tackling people in hospitals, and delivering lines like, “I’m gonna put you in jail, and the whole world is going to watch me!” as if it’s ever normal or natural to say something like that. It’s like he based his whole performance on Martin Riggs in the first scene of Lethal Weapon.

See? Guns are great. That's why we give them to our cops.

See? Guns are great. That’s why we give them to our cops.

You need to carefully consider the number of machine-gun fights that take place in the heart of London—not really firearms-saturated place—including the final knockdown, when a half dozen random, nameless lackeys show up purely so that the heroes have more people to shoot it out with. You also have to appreciate the way that Lewinsky figured out who the bad guy is, not by any actual, you know, detective work, but because, like us, he realizes that he’s run out of cast members to be suspects.

"Eat hot death! Damn, I'm bad at this..."

“Eat hot death! Damn, I’m bad at this…”

But while Welcome isn’t a good movie, it sure is an entertaining one. I mean, you have some great talent in the cast—Strong, in particular, comes off like Stanley Tucci’s tougher older brother–and while story is overheated, it’s pretty compelling, and pays attention to some interesting social issues facing contemporary London.

Tremble before my steely gaze!

Tremble before my steely gaze!

Additionally, Welcome to the Punch is a gorgeously-shot movie, with writer/director Eran Creevy taking great pains to set as many scenes as possible in visually-rich environments—city rooftops overlooking the skyline, beneath the aurora borealis in Iceland, an empty nightclub, a modernist hotel room. The cinematography is lovely, and a nice-looking film can compensate for a lot of storytelling issues (Ridley Scott has made a career off this truism).

So, that’s Welcome to the Punch. Thank you, England, for making the world safe for melodramatic action movies again. That and Freema Agyemon.

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