Beating the gang flicks to the punch
Film of the Week: Welcome to the punch (15A, general release, 100 minutes) ****
Eran Creevy made his name directing music videos, and has just one feature, the 2008 crime drama Shifty, to his credit. Hardly the best preparation for tackling Welcome to the Punch, a bold, big budget British heist thriller that aims to take on the Hollywood studios at their own game.
Creevy, who also wrote the screenplay, even has the audacity to make numerous pointed references to Heat: In doing so he's setting himself up for a fall, because Michael Mann's 1995 film is probably the greatest heist movie of them all. But Creevy backs up his bravado in this lean, mean and commendably focused drama that grips the viewer from the very start.
James McAvoy plays a London undercover cop called Max Lewinsky whose dedication to his job borders on the reckless. In a breathless and fluent opening sequence, Max tails a ruthless gang of ultra-professional thieves who've targeted a prestigious London City bank. They wear matching suits and make their getaway on motorbikes, and when Max follows them into an underground car park he's cornered and shot in the leg by their leader, Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong). As Max has seen Sternwood's face, the logical thing for a ruthless criminal to do would be to kill him, but Jacob hesitates and walks away.
Three years later, Max has recovered from his injuries but has become obsessed with tracking Jacob Sternwood down. And he gets his chance when Sternwood's son Ruan (Elyes Gabel) is apprehended at London City Airport suffering from a serious gunshot wound. Before he's arrested, the boy phones his dad, and the cops use the kid's mobile to track Sternwood to a remote hideaway in the frozen wilds of Iceland.
But Sternwood escapes before the net can close on him, and comes to London to wreak his revenge on whoever shot his kid.
An enjoyably murky subplot involves bent coppers and illegal arms shipments, and a fine supporting cast includes Peter Mullan, David Morrissey, Daniel Mays and Jason Flemyng. Johnny Harris is particularly good as a psychotic former soldier called Dean Warns, and in an awkward moment worthy of Tarantino himself, the film's funniest scene involves an armed standoff between him, sundry enemies and his sweet old mother.
Welcome to the Punch is as good a film in its way, as classic English crime thrillers like Get Carter, but in the best possible sense seems more American than British. The spectre of Heat lurks constantly in the background, but Creevy's film stands up to the comparison well, and makes London look more imposing and starkly glamorous than any other movie to this point. The British capital now boasts the most impressive skyline in Europe, and the gleaming towers of the financial district form an imposing backdrop to Creevy's tortuous tale.
McAvoy might seem a little mild-mannered to pass as an action hero, but does pretty well here, in partnership with the excellent Andrea Riseborough. The real star, however, is Mark Strong.
A versatile, charismatic and hugely underrated character actor, Strong has been quietly impressive in everything from Syriana, The Young Victoria and Sherlock Holmes to Zero Dark Thirty and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
He draws the eye in any scene, no matter who he's up against, understands that when it comes to film acting, less is most definitely more, and is outstanding here as an enigmatic criminal with his own code of honour.
Director: Eran Creevy Stars: James McAvoy, Mark Strong, David Morrissey, Andrea Riseborough