‘The Sweeney’ goes down easy, but leaves a rough aftertaste

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The Sweeney

Written and Directed by Nick Love

UK, 2012

British import The Sweeney, which debuted in its homeland last September but is just now making its way to the U.S., resembles a few different action movies. But, as a remake of a 1970s BBC cop show about an elite police unit, the film it most resembles is the Colin Farrell vehicle S.W.A.T. That film has enjoyed a long life on cable and DVD because it’s brisk and well-made, but no one would accuse it of being great art. In the end, the same is true of The Sweeney.

This is the story of the London police’s Flight Squad, so named because they are not tied down to any one precinct or borough but can fly all over the city. The titular nickname is Cockney rhyming slang: “Sweeney” as in “Todd,” to rhyme with “Squad.” Jack Regan (Ray Winstone) runs the unit like he might have in the ’70s, with as much emphasis on the baseball bat and pick handle as forensics and the iMac. His squad is large and diverse, but his two most important subordinates are his long-time partner George (Ben Drew, aka Plan B), and Nancy (Hayley Atwell, aka Peggy Carter from Captain America), who is cheating on her husband with Regan. Oh, and said cuckolded husband is an Internal Affairs detective, which is awkward because Regan has to steal from his crime scenes to pay off his informants. Got all that?

The Sweeney is hard to follow at first, as much for its labyrinthine plot as for the fact that Winstone’s Cockney growl is nearly indecipherable to American ears. But the film is never crushed under the weight of those issues, because director Nick Love (who also wrote the screenplay) keeps the pace rapid. He does so by stealing more than a few tricks from American music-video-turned-film directors like Michael Bay: lots of fast cutting and fancy camera movement, even if the scene wouldn’t seem to call for it. Love does a fine job of making The Sweeney look like it cost twice as much as it did, but he also removes whatever dramatic staying power the characters might have had.

The Winstone/Atwell relationship is a curious one. On one hand, it’s yet another case of a pudgy older male actor getting to have a hot on-screen relationship with a lithe starlet almost half his age, which is embarrassing since the gender-reversed version never happens. On the other hand, Winstone and Atwell are both good enough in their scenes together that it’s almost possible to understand why these two characters are in a relationship. In the end, Atwell suffers because she just isn’t given enough to do; as the movie goes on, she becomes more of a plot point than a character.

The Sweeney turns on a remarkable action set-piece halfway through, a running gun battle through London’s historic Trafalgar Square that is on a par with the famed bank robbery scene in Michael Mann’s Heat. After that peak, the movie just doesn’t have the power to one-up itself. The same sort of cliches that plague most cop films come into play, and the movie closes with a weird chase sequence that seems to have no awareness of its striking resemblance to Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz. The Sweeney is entertaining and efficient, but it leaves the impression that it’s exactly the sort of stereotype which Hot Fuzz was laughing at.

-Mark Young

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