Rarely does a British film come along that smacks you right between the eyes with its sheer style and scope, but Welcome to the Punch does just that. James McAvoy and Mark Strong go head-to-head in an all-guns blazing battle of the egos reminiscent of Hollywood blockbuster Heat and Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs. It’s not original and it doesn’t have quite the same depth as those films, but it is packed with excitement – not least because it signals the arrival of a bright new talent.
Strong calls writer/director Eran Creevy “the new Ridley”, referring to that famous Scott brother who came on board as a producer, here, after seeing his debut feature Shifty. That was a socially conscious crime drama– pared down yet well-crafted and quietly moving – and perhaps, an unlikely springboard to big-budget filmmaking. But from the outset, as the camera swoops in on the City of London, capturing its modern side in cool blues and chrome, you know you’re in safe hands.
Down on the ground, rabid copper Max Lewinsky (McAvoy) is in hot pursuit of master criminal Jacob Sternwood (Strong) who has just pulled off the latest in a long line of audacious heists. Evidently, Max has had it up to the neck, being made a fool of by this smooth operator, but he’s asking for it when he defies orders and continues the chase on foot, alone, and outnumbered. Sternwood could kill him right there and then, but instead, shoots him in the leg.
Three years later Max is sleepwalking through life – well, hobbling really – having to drain his knee with a syringe every day before his morning coffee. Meanwhile, Sternwood is enjoying magnificent lake views at what looks like his own personal Scandinavian spa resort. Truthfully, he looks a little fed up as well, but Sternwood doesn’t get a kick out crime – not anymore, anyway. His pulse only quickens when his hoodie son (Elyes Gabel) is gunned down on London’s streets and taken into custody. Inevitably, Sternwood comes back to town and Max switches to red alert, keeping a close eye on the hospital where the boy is in critical condition.
Of course, Creevy must keep the men apart for most of the film, but he sustains the tension by always having them within teasing proximity of each other. He doesn’t get bogged down either with the roots of Max’s obsession prior to getting his kneecap blown off. It falls to a thorny Andrea Riseborough (playing his partner) to mirror his loneliness and self-pity. McAvoy’s naturally hangdog expression comes in useful for that too and there’s a lot of grimacing as he pounds that knee, desperate to nail his man.
Sternwood, on the other hand, doesn’t do personal grudges. When Max finally gets the chance to ask him why he didn’t just shoot him dead, the response is, “What for?” It’s a selfless emotion that drives Sternwood (paternal love) and it makes him more noble – more heroic even – than the cop on his heels. Again, this is an astute bit of casting. Strong is a towering presence with a laser-like stare, though it’s often used to instil terror in clear-cut baddie roles (Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, The Green Lantern). He’s done more complex work in smaller films and TV, but it’s refreshing to see Strong in a commercial movie that allows him to play with an interesting duality.
At one point, the men try to work out their differences in the back of a van, in an improvised scrap, but Creevy also stages operatic shoot outs, rhythmically choreographed and grand in scale – and these flourishes are what set the film apart from your standard British cop thriller. As the endgame draws near, the London Docklands (stacked with shipping containers) becomes a labyrinthine maze, where danger lurks around every corner. The plot is comparatively straightforward. There are no surprising twists and more than a few clichés, but the fact that you know where all this headed and still can’t look away is testament to the star power of McAvoy and Strong (ably supported by David Morrissey, Daniel Mayes and Peter Mullan) and the assured, dynamic style of Creevy behind the camera. No doubt Hollywood execs will be rolling out the welcome mat for him.
Welcome to the Punch opens in UK cinemas on 15 March