Brit crew + US style = Solid thrills.
191Delivering a heady mix of Brit setup and US thrills, Welcome to the Punch feels fresher than it should - through the location and cast - but still follows the best of the Stateside cops-and-robbers thrillers with a vengeance, even throwing a little Eastern magic into the bargain courtesy of a director clearly as influenced by John 'Hard Boiled' Woo as he is by the likes of Mann's Heat and Bigelow's Point Break. Driven by more energy and style than you would expect the budget to command, and brimming with superior Brit talent, doing their best with an understandably cliche-ridden script, the film is nothing exceptional; probably not even anything distinctly special, but it is still remarkably entertaining from start to finish.
The story is undeniably familiar: Max Lewinski is a troubled cop who has spent years of his life chasing the same elusive super-criminal, armed robber Jacob Sternwood, who eventually retired, unpunished. But when Sternwood's son turns up in hospital with a gutshot, Max thinks that this might be a final chance to lure the master criminal out, and catch him once and for all.
It's easy to see why the talented Brit cast were drawn to this piece - James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Peter Mullan, Andrea Riseborough and James Morrissey - as the script had been championed as one of the top three unproduced screenplays back in 2010, and was backed by none other than veteran filmmaker Ridley Scott, who had worked with many of them before. It was written by up-and-coming Brit Director Eran Creedy, whose 2009 debut, Shifty, had been a critical success off the back of a quarter-million-dollar budget, and who was hoping to now use the clout of Scott's producer credit to work the same magic, only on a much bigger scale to reflect the 30-times-bigger budget.
What made the Punch screenplay different was its characterisation of the two leads; a wounded cop - damaged both physically and mentally - obsessed with catching the career criminal who did it to him, a man who has his own demons, which manifest in the form of panic attacks at the most inopportune moments. The story was supposed to draw parallels between the two, blurring the lines until they become impossible to distinguish between, reflecting them upon one another like flipsides to the same coin.
Unfortunately, after delivering his first cut, writer/director Creedy had second thoughts about the effectiveness of his screenplay and re-cut the entire movie to remove large chunks of character development and backstory. Apparently he didn't want to spend too much time delving into the pasts of these characters and instead wanted to focus on their story in the present, but I'd have loved for him to have stuck with his original interpretation, as this version is far more generic, dropping many of the more original story elements that would have kept the proceedings fresh, and instead focussing on the balletic Hong Kong-inspired action.
Which is fine, because the film still thrives on its unusual London setting (c.f. Fast 6) and reasonably developed characterisations, whilst delivering to the mainstream with its more visceral components. And it's bloody stylish too, unafraid to nod overtly towards Heat as its coolly-dressed suit-clad robbers strut around in slo-mo, and it's driven, maverick super-cops chase frantically after them.
As stated, McAvoy and Strong must have been drawn in by the script, and thus perhaps disappointed by what was left on the cutting-room floor - Strong commented in interview that he was surprised when he was shown the final cut, and wondered where all of his character development had gone - but they shouldn't be too upset, Welcome to the Punch still offers them up as very cool co-stars, the perfect protagonist/antagonist combo, here developed (eventually) into that kind of tense, reluctant relationship that made Point Break work so well. Running around with all manner of firearms in famous London locales must have also been a hoot and, for once, rather than dismissing the rampant use of guns on Brit streets (by cops and crims alike), they dive head-on and attempt to integrate it into the actual story.
You may also be surprised by the quality of the supporting talent too - sure, they don't all get enough room to breathe but, on the flipside, they do all manage to make most out of otherwise potentially cardboard cutout peripheral characters. I'm not even sure quite how Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion, Shadow Dancer) manages to make us feel so much for her character in such a short period of time, and the ever-scary Peter Mullan (Tyrannosaur) still stands out in a sidelined supporting role that, in anybody else's hands, could have been utterly forgettable. The biggest praise should go to the little-known Johnny Harris (Snow White and the Huntsman, Black Death), who plays an ex-Special Forces soldier who will do anything for the cause he believes in. Harris is exceptional in his portrayal of yet another potentially clichéd character - even more so than the leads - and is utterly convincing and thus downright terrifying during the tense on-screen confrontations.
Although he clearly had considerably more to work with this time around - and the production clout of Ridley Scott behind him to get him into all the best locations, and secure the impressive cast - Creedy still delivers a very stylish medium budget action thriller for the cost of an independent feature. $8.5 Million really doesn't go very far in Hollywood these days, but Creedy works wonders with it, and some of the set-pieces are very cool indeed. From the tense slo-mo standoff - pure John Woo - to the numerous chases and, of course, the gun-centric conclusion, it's a helluva ride. And, sure, you've seen it dozens of times before, but perhaps not by a Brit cast in Brit locations, which certainly gives it an edge.
I would have loved to have seen Creedy's first cut, as I dare say it would have been far more original in its treatment of otherwise well-covered ground, but I have no problem in the sheer entertainment value of his Heat / Point Break / Hard Boiled tribute. It's a solid, enjoyable action-thriller.
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