McAvoy and Strong are able, but ‘Welcome to the Punch’ a derivative crime thriller

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welcome to the punch posterWelcome to the Punch

Directed by Eran Creevey

Written by Eran Creevey

United Kingdom, 2013

Anyone who watches Welcome to the Punch will, at some point, feel the unerring prick of realization running up their spine. In full, the film is technically original, but in its parts, the seasoned moviegoer will recognize a number of elements from pretty much every crime drama released in the last 30 years. We have a dogged, Javert-like cop looking for revenge for a past slight, a conspiracy that reaches far and wide both within the force and within the world of big-city politics, and the sleek silvers and blues meant to point out the inherent, Michael Mann-esque moodiness on screen. Welcome to the Punch has an impressive cast of British toughs, but its familiarity breeds a bit of contempt by the end.

The renegade cop this time is Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy), still nursing a grudge after getting shot 3 years ago by feared criminal Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong). Sternwood bolted to Iceland after that incident, but is lured back to London when his son is seriously wounded while getting involved in similar unsavory activities. Soon, Max is back on the case, hoping to bring Sternwood down with his watchful partner (Andrea Riseborough). Soon, everyone in this tangled web quickly becomes aware of how Sternwood’s son’s injury is a microcosm of a bigger, more deadly problem involving politicians, gun death rates, and other predictably nasty crime-drama tropes.

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Writer-director Eran Creevey is obsessed, it seems, with aping the style of Michael Mann’s best films, like Heat and The Insider, oversaturating the film’s color palette with silvers and blues. Every time we see a color like yellow or red—rare moments, these—it’s both a breath of fresh air and almost blinding to look at. Welcome to the Punch is awash in blue, making the color scheme translate into a visual form of white noise. It’s not so much that the film’s palette is unique, but that the story is too low-key to have a pulse. The only sequence that stands out—a third-act confrontation at one heavy’s grandmother’s house—owes a debt to someone equally inspired by Mann, Christopher Nolan, and his sci-fi film Inception; the scene is marked by its extreme slow-motion and its throbbing, Hans Zimmer-esque score.

James McAvoy acquits himself well enough as Lewinsky, a cop whose temper often gets the better of him. He’s well-matched by Strong, a performer who exudes menace from his every pore. Strong has a tendency to physically overpower McAvoy—it’s not terribly shocking that Max gets shot, even in the leg, in the propulsive prologue—but as the conspiracy reveals itself in unsurprising fashion, and they get closer than expected, it’s at least agreeably grim. Riseborough is decent in her time onscreen, as are other British crime-drama stalwarts like Peter Mullan, Jason Flemyng, and David Morrissey. Welcome to the Punch is so dour that the characters ought to crack a smile once in a while, though, and it would be nice for a bit of levity to be sprinkled throughout. (That sequence which feels too similar to Inception may inspire a few laughs, but for the wrong reasons.)

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Basically, what sinks Welcome to the Punch is that nagging feeling that you have seen this story told every way, up and down, backwards and forwards. We have, for decades before and to come, thrilled to police-procedural stories on television and in film; however, even within such a common genre, it’s nice to see something new brought to the table. The specifics of the conspiracy in this movie may be unique, but it’s particularly easy to figure out which characters are involved almost from the moment we meet them. We have seen before the cop who trusts all other police officers even if he doesn’t get along with them, only to have that trust proven wrong once it’s revealed that the entire force is dirty, if not for the few honest cops! Gasp, shock, surprise, etc.

Welcome to the Punch is a slick, colorless stew whose ingredients are a dash of every cop movie of the last 30 years. It has one primary advantage: a colorful cast that, at times, almost makes up for the lack of visual flair. James McAvoy and Mark Strong make for a fine leading duo, both playing characters who do a hefty amount of detective work in between spraying bullets all over the back alleys of London. But their combined talent isn’t enough to obscure that the story beats of Welcome to the Punch are fusty and worn out, even if they’ve been dressed up in shiny, designer fashion.

— Josh Spiegel

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