I wouldn’t say that crime dramas are my exact cup of tea, but I can appreciate the genre at times. Such films are often synonymous with action fests, but the subject of today’s review is a bit more intelligent than that, and certainly in the higher percentile of the genre.
Welcome to the Punch is the story of London detective Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) and legendary criminal Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong), who both end up investigating a criminal enterprise involving Sternwood’s son, which draws them together as unlikely allies. Conspiracy, betrayal and gun fights abound.
It’s a good story, moderately paced with a straightforward aspect to it. It’s a clever story of a conspiracy unravelling bit by bit, of classic police work and following a thread back to its source. The key thing in plots of this nature is that the mystery be a believable one, one that is solved and explained in a consistent, logical manner. Welcome to the Punch succeeds in that.
It also succeeds in intermingling a very personal, intense story, two of them in fact, with the general narrative. There is Lewinsky, obsessed with hunting Sternwood down, carrying forever the disability gained from a foolhardy attempt to stop him single-handed and there is Sternwood, trying to leave a life of crime behind but getting sucked back in against his will. These are compelling enough plots to run beside the main one, and the movie manages to balance this trifecta of narratives admirably, never spending too much or too little exploring one of the other. The connection between Sternwood and Lewinsky, from their opening chase/fight to their final gun spree is explored well and excellent use is made of the principle “show, don’t tell”. Surprisingly, Eran Creevy chooses to keep his two leads apart for most of the movie but they are still connected through the places they visit and the things that they investigate.
Welcome to the Punch has its actions beats, and breaks them up rather well, so they don’t actually detract from the plot, but improve it. Creevy has a bit of gunplay here and there, which is fine, but limits it to the extent that the finale shooting gallery has a bit of spark still. Paced well, the move flows to the conclusion, though it is there that it all comes a little unstuck, with a somewhat unsatisfying, downbeat finale, which is rather open-ended about the fate of both main character.
James McAvoy is an actor who I think is consistently good, which I’ve probably mentioned before. I can’t remember a film I didn’t like him in, and he’s showed off an impressive range in his relatively short career (Doctor working for an African dictator, Santa’s youngest son, office worker turned assassin, now cop with a grudge). I’m glad to say that he’s good here too. He brings a very quiet intensity to the Lewinsky character, a simmering rage that is coming to the boil underneath the surface. You can see the obsession, the innate desire to bring Sternwood to justice beyond all sense, but McAvoy also shows us the block: how difficult Lewinsky finds it to simply engage with people, to express ideas, ever since his injury from the opening scenes. There’s an excellent sense of desperateness there, or self-doubt battling great anger. McAvoy never has any moments where he rants and raves about his lot in life, but he still manages to leave the audience with the impression of a somewhat broken man and the obsession that he thinks will lead to him becoming whole again. Quiet little moments, like his stillborn romantic interlude with his partner, do far more in showing us what kind of character Lewinsky is, just as the rather heartbreaking final shot, Lewinsky seemingly about to take the fall for a string of murders and doing so while Sternwood escapes, does also.
He is matched by Mark Strong as Sternwood, who would be the villain in a traditional crime story but is much more of a sympathetic character here. His Sternwood is perhaps a little bit of the “man of honour in a den of thieves” stereotype, choosing not to kill Lewinsky in the film’s opening and only getting drawn back into the murky underworld of London when his family comes under direct attack. Strong’s a popular actor, but I’ve never really rated him in terms of emotive talent too highly. He’s good at playing stoic, mostly unemotional characters. I’m using the word a lot, but “intense” really is the best description. Sternwood has one brief, rather compelling moment where the walls break down along with resolve, but most of the time he’s carrying neither a smile nor a grimace. Strong does what is expected of him here, but he’s just another bad guy with an edge, as he was in Sherlock Holmes, The Guard and the Green Lantern.
One of my all-too-frequent complaints in movies is that supporting casts, talented ones anyway, get gipped for screentime. Welcome to the Punch manages to avoid that though, with a number of smaller parts that get very well balanced with each other and the two leads.
Andrea Riseborough is Lewinsky’s long suffering partner, who gets time enough to show her exasperation with both him and the system, to indulge in some of her own detective work and to engage in one of the most scary, disturbing death scenes I’ve ever watched. Elyes Gabel is Sternwood’s son, the young man desperate to emulate his illustrious father, and who pays the price. He doesn’t get long, but here was a man with real fear, real desperation, in the brief moments where he has a speaking part. Peter Mullan is Sternwood’s friend and former accomplice. Like Sternwood he’s been trying to get out of the crime game, but is forced back into it out of an unspoken obligation to his brother. Mullan’s performance was subtle and understated, just a guy trying to do the right thing and willing to do whatever it takes to get it done. He offers some of the rare bits of humour in the script and he supports the main leads well enough.
David Morrissey is the real stand-out of the rest of the cast though, as the conniving, snake-ish police chief. Morrissey competently brings us a sympathetic villain, one whose real nature is revealed only at the right moment, and who then gets enough presence and time onscreen with which to elaborate on just why he did what he did, and why it matters. He’s a man pushed to the edge by circumstances outside of his control, who has to radically compromise on his own values in order to get what he wants. His pleading in the final scene was evocative of the best kind of Shakespearian villains, the ones that you just can’t help but agree with in many respects.
Johnny Harris and Dean Hayes round off the cast as the somewhat psychopathic ex-soldier Dean Warns and the smarmy superior officer to Lewinsky respectively. They are the main physical villains of the peace, both effective in different ways. Harris certainly leaves more of an impression with the audience, especially during the scenes set in his grandmothers living room. If Sternwood is a honourable type of criminal, Harris’ character is the insane, dangerous kind. Hayes has little to do than be an obstacle to Lewinsky until he becomes an active villain in the latter stages, but is an effective enough villain in his own right.
Visually, it’s what you would expect from the more modern age of British films, from Layer Cake to Skyfall. It’s very dark (most important scenes are at night), but with a certain sheen to it, a focus on bright lights in the blackness, sleek cars and sleeker guns. Creevy chooses, frequently, to use distinctive wide shots which created a good impression, like Lewinsky trying to hear the rumble of motorbikes at the beginning, interrogating an informant on a building site, or Sternwood’s Icelandic retreat. Such wideness and darkness serves to better illustrate the main characters and the bleak world they inhabit as well as to accentuate the muzzle flashes and explosions that characterise the actions scenes of the film. It is, in a way, hauntingly beautiful, the juxtaposition of darkness with artificial light.
Those action scenes are simple and well-coordinated. The pace of the opening chase scene is terrific at setting the tone, Sternwood shows off his intelligence effectively in his escape from Iceland, the dance floor shoot-out is a lovely set-piece, and the docklands battle provides a suitably epic finale, one that is not drawn down by the gunplay that occurred earlier in the film. That final scene in particular, where Lewinsky and Sternwood are able to let loose and gun down the mercenary horde seeking to silence them is an excellent catharsis for the subtle evil that the two have uncovered, a wild-west style system of justice that feels good to watch having seen the corruption and inadequacies of the traditional system.
It’s a tight, gritty script. This is not a very quotable movie, the wordplay is the method by which a very straightforward plot is introduced. For a police/crime movie, I noted that the cursing was kept to a minimum, as was any overly-emphasised machismo. The actual conspiracy side of the whole thing is revealed and elaborated fully in a very satisfying way, and while it may be considered just a little bit out there (you have to accept a universe where British gun crime has eclipsed the United States), I did not find at all over the top for the genre/situation presented. There are no elaborate monologues or eye-raising back and forth’s in this film, but there are very good moments that leave you enthralled. David Morrissey’s character at the docks, Lewinsky and Sternwood coming to terms with one another next to the river, the three compatriots in the grandmothers living room, Sternwood in the morgue, Welcome to the Punch has plenty of great scenes even if the dialogue and script could be described as forgettable in many respects.
Music wise, it’s acceptable if very forgettable. The vague sort of electronic/repeated chords type score is evident here, just the sort of thing to provide a suitable background to the action without garnering much plaudits of its own accord. This seems like a relatively low budget affair in many respects, so the soundtrack is just one of those things that was left at the wayside.
Let’s talk themes. One of the main themes and visual motifs, that are obvious from the first sequence to last, is guns. Guns are the main focus of the conspiracy that is being investigated, and they are the main weapon used to end it. A key point of Welcome to the Punch is a streamlined discussion on the benefits of an armed police force, albeit in a fictionalised version of London where gun crime is rampant. The key point seems to be that guns provoke a sort of madness in people, in the criminals that use them for nefarious deeds, and in the police that are targeted by them and then desire them above anything else. The Police Chief is brought down by an insatiable desire to protect his men from this dire threat, even if, in trying to satisfy this need, he ends up making the problem worse than ever. Political groups clandestinely support this operation, resulting in the deaths of several people, a moral bankruptcy that can all be traced back to an overusing obsession with gunplay and bullets.
More than that, guns come to define characters, make them more active than passive. We only see Sternwood as the deadly predator that he is when he gets a gun in his hand, mostly a pistol, a more personable weapon. The bad guys almost uniformly use sleeker, more modern automatic rifles, without any identifying or distinguishing marks. At the conclusion, the ageing dinosaur that is David Cassidy’s character brandishes an inaccurate and ineffective AK-47 before being blown away.
Then there is obsession and desperation. Lewinsky is obsessed with tracking down Sternwood, to the detriment of his career and his health. Having to syringe his bullet wound daily is a constant reminder of his previous weakness, and he is desperate to make up for that failing, which has allowed all of the following to come to pass. This leads him to essentially take on the whole world single-handed, and become the scapegoat for everything at the films conclusion. Sternwood, on the other hand, has his own obsession, avenging the death of his son, an object for which is willing to team up with someone who would gladly see him incarcerated and risk his life to see done. Sternwood slips into this role easier than Lewinsky, but he is no less desperate to see it finished. As previously stated, the Police Chief and his political conspirators have their own kind of deadly obsession with which to occupy themselves, a dark, desperate obsession which leads to their own destruction and a score of other deaths beside. Certainly, the idea of single-minded obsession is treated very negatively by Welcome to the Punch, an act of hubris that nearly always result in nemesis.
Lastly, there is plain old simple revenge. Lewinsky wants to get back at Sternwood, not just for his life of crime or for the gunshot wound, but because Sternwood has left him with a broken life filled with doubts. Lewinsky strives to know just why Sternwood previously let him live, but also waxes poetically about his keen wish to see Sternwood behind bars, a mindless fixation that destroys his personal relationships and leaves hum vulnerable. Towards the end, Lewinsky turns his revenge desires on those who are truly responsible for the present situation, for his stuck career, dead partner and the deaths of several others, and finds the outlet he needs, blowing away a score of mercenaries hired to keep quiet the most explosive political conspiracy in history. Having gained a true measure of revenge on those that actually deserved a bit of vigilante justice, Lewinsky finds himself with nothing left to fight for and just lets Sternwood go, echoing clearly the same reason that Sternwood previously gave for his opening scene mercy: What would be the point?
Sternwood and the criminal fraternity have a more traditional view of revenge, of eye for an eye. Those who have attacked Sternwood’s family have to die, be made to pay for the blood they have spilled. Sternwood is joined in his quest by previous friends without hesitation, because this is just how things are in the London underworld.
Ultimately, Welcome to the Punch is probably not notable or unique enough to make a lasting impression with the cinema-going public, but it is still a fine example of the genre, with a good plot, good acting, good visuals and some decent work on themes and motifs. The script lets the whole thing down just a little, but Welcome to the Punch is still a fine production with an excellent cast, that is well worth checking out. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Momentum Pictures)