The Sweeney (2012)
“Act like a criminal to catch a criminal”
Director: Nick Love
Cast: Ray Winstone, Ben Drew, Hayley Atwell
Synopsis: A hardened detective in the Flying Squad of London’s Metropolitan police. Based on the ’70s UK TV show.
The 1970s was something of a golden era for tough and gritty crime series on British TV, most of which emanated from the studios of Euston Films, a subsidiary of Thames Television. In addition to cop shows like Special Branch and Van Der Valk, Euston also produced the hugely popular Minder series, as well as the drama series Fox and Widows (The Professionals, the other cop show everyone remembers from the 1970s, was made by London Weekend Television). But the Big Daddy of them all was The Sweeney which ran from 1975 to 1978 and featured John Thaw and Dennis Waterman as a pair of uncompromising, hard-drinking, heavy-smoking Flying Squad detectives who were every bit as tough as the villains they encountered each week. The series continues to hold a place in the nation’s heart nearly forty years on, and is regularly repeated on satellite TV, and it’s this enduring popularity that prompted British writer and director Nick Love to resurrect the characters for a big screen outing.
Love’s version of The Sweeney is updated to the present day, and contains little that relates to the original TV series other than a few character names and a toothless reworking of the famous theme music over the closing credits (think of how Mike Flowers’ version of Wonderwall compared to Oasis’s original and you’ll have some idea of just how completely Lorne Balfe’s effort fails to generate any resonance with the original theme tune). Whereas Thaw’s Jack Carter was something of a Noir-type anti-hero, combining a laconic cynicism with a quintessentially British set of principles buried deep beneath a gruff exterior, Ray Winstone’s interpretation is of a crude and boorish thug who is virtually indistinguishable from the gangsters he’s chasing. Truth be told, Thaw’s Regan wouldn’t have the time of day for a thug like Winstone’s. Ben Drew (whose alter ego is rapper Plan B) fares little better playing Regan’s sidekick George Carter, whose 2012 incarnation is a council-estate former criminal with chav tendencies, a faint Jamaican patois and a black son. Really, watching Love’s The Sweeney is like entering a parallel dimension where everything’s the same – but different.
We gain an early insight into the unorthodox tactics of Regan’s unruly team when they gatecrash the robbery of gold bullion taking place in a warehouse, and enthusiastically lay into the villains with baseball bats. The thieves abandon their haul in their haste to escape, and we later learn that Regan has pocketed some of it to pass on to an informer (Alan Ford) in return for information regarding the planned robbery of a high class bank. Quite exactly why Love and co-writer John Hodge felt the need for this little petty larceny on Regan’s behalf is unclear. It’s certainly not the kind of thing the old Regan would have done, not least of which it’s an entirely stupid act of thievery that is certain to be discovered. Of course, when it does, Regan and his unit comes under the scrutiny of internal affairs, which is headed by a man called Lewis (Steven Mackintosh), whose wife Nancy (Hayley Atwell), just happens to be a member of the Squad, as well as Regan’s unlikely love interest. So there’s another reason to like the bloke even more…
The Sweeney’s attention is diverted away from the possible robbery of the bank by a robbery at a jewellers during which one of the customers is shot in the back of the head. Regan suspects his long-time nemesis Francis Allen (Paul Anderson) is behind the deed, but after being hauled in for questioning, he’s forced to let Allen go when his alibi that he was out of the country holds up. For some reason, this wrongful arrest puts more pressure on Regan from Lewis, who receives a throttling from our hero for his troubles.
The 2012 version of The Sweeney looks slick and glossy in a way that the original never did. The unit operates out of a modern white minimalist office in the heart of the City of London, and while much of the action takes place in backstreet pool halls, drinking dens, and taxi ranks, it all has this lustrous sheen about it, as if basing its look on Miami Vice rather than the deliberately de-glamourised milieu and muted colours of the original TV show. It’s almost as if Love was commissioned to make one kind of movie, but was aching to make another one entirely.
To be fair, although Love has made little attempt to capture the look or feel of the TV show, the plot of the movie, while a little convoluted, remains closer to the spirit of the original stories, even as it stamps all over them with its determination to update Regan and Carter to the modern era. And if you’re able to forget that this is supposed to be a revisiting of one of Britain’s most beloved TV shows, you just might get a measure of enjoyment out of it. The problem is, Love feels the need to sensationalise things with ridiculously out-of-place action set-pieces, the nadir of which is a poorly executed shoot-out in a Trafalgar Square that’s peculiarly light on visitors. Considering he had such a potentially spectacular location at his disposal, you’ve got to wonder why he chose to stage the movie’s anti-climactic finale in a deserted mobile home park in Gravesend.