Welcome to the Punch (2013)
“A Stunning, Intelligent Thriller.”
Director: Eran Creevy
Cast: James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Andrea Riseborough
Synopsis: Ex-criminal Jacob Sternwood is forced to return to London when his son is involved in a heist gone wrong. This gives his nemesis, detective Max Lewinsky, one last chance to catch the man he’s always been after.
Moody performances abound in Welcome to the Punch, complemented by a steely blue tint that renders the world created by writer/director Eran Creevy a cold and unwelcoming one. It’s a world in which laughter is rarely heard, but where confrontational attitudes and hidden agendas are commonplace. Creevy at least manages to weave a reasonably compelling, if emotionally distant, story around this unpromising backdrop, even though the depth and complexity of his characters varies alarmingly. While the story in Welcome to the Punch does eventually crumble under the burden of its attempt to blend a character study with a conspiracy story and an action thriller, it’s entertaining enough.
James McAvoy (Trance, X-Men: First Class) is an unlikely choice for an embittered and cynical police detective, but he acquits himself well in the role of Max Lewinsky who, when we first meet him, is in pursuit of four men in suits who, in the dead of night, have just robbed what appears to be a safe deposit vault housed in one of those architecturally impressive but coldly unappealing buildings in London’s financial hub. The robbers make their getaway on motorbikes, and you would be forgiven for thinking Welcome to the Punch was a superhero movie by the way Lewinsky pinpoints the location and direction in which his quarry are travelling simply by listening intently (albeit in an eerily — and unconvincingly — deserted city).
Then Lewinsky eventually abandons the car in which he has been giving chase to continue his pursuit on foot(!), taking a short cut that has way too many corners to be anything but a long cut by my reckoning. I must be wrong, though, because Lewinsky has time to arm himself with a metal pipe and take up position behind a wall before the bikers roar past. He swings the pipe into the chest of the last rider, throwing him from his bike, crushing his chest and breaking his neck — but wait! — the biker picks himself up without even limping, and still looks immaculate in his pin-stripe suit. Lewinsky loses the ensuing fight, and receives a bullet in the leg for his troubles. The biker removes his helmet to reveal that he is Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong — Kick Ass, Blood), Lewinsky’s nemesis and the kind of sophisticated criminal who exists only in the world of fiction. Sternwood thinks long and hard about finishing off Lewinsky as the cop writhes around on the ground before eventually walking away.
Fast-forward three years, and Sternwood now lives a secluded life in some pine forest in Iceland. However, one night he receives a call from his son (Elyes Gabel — World War Z), who is nursing a wound to his stomach and who is apprehended by police before he can speak a few confused sentences to his dad. News of Ruan Sternwood’s admission to hospital alerts the police to the possibility of Sternwood’s covert return to Britain to see his boy, and Lewinsky is amongst the team tasked with monitoring visitors to Sternwood Jr’s hospital bed. Lewinsky is now a withdrawn shell of his former self, lacking drive and ambition. He regularly has to drain fluid from the leg into which the man who granted him his life fired a bullet, and has no friends other than his work partner, Sarah (Andrea Riseborough – Oblivion). Lewinsky’s immediate boss, Nathan Bartnick (Daniel Mays) suspects he’s a little too personally involved to be of much use on the assignment, but Bartnick’s boss, Thomas Geiger (David Morrissey) thinks otherwise…
Welcome to the Punch sidesteps the extended game of cat-and-mouse it would be reasonable to expect following its first act, instead throwing Lewinsky and Sternwood into an unlikely alliance due to a behind-the-scenes conspiracy which sees the policeman being framed for murder. But, to its credit, this is no by-the-numbers mismatched buddies type of movie in which our heroes trade wittily insulting banter. Welcome to the Punch retains a fiercely dour perspective on its situations and characters, keeping them at arm’s length from both one another and the audience at all times. Mark Strong, who is no better actor than James McAvoy, but who possesses a charisma that McAvoy could never hope to match, benefits from a character with an unusual level of depth for a movie of this kind. He’s not a bad man so much as a man who does bad things, and his life is guided by a recognisable set of principles which explains why he spares Lewinsky his life at the start of the film. Compared to Sternwood, Lewinsky comes across as something of a self-pitying juvenile, and McAvoy struggles to overcome the emotional torture upon which his entire character seems to be built.
Contrasting with the comparison of its two lead characters is a strangely fetishistic pre-occupation with guns the like of which we haven’t seen since Arnie’s 1980s shoot-em-ups. To accommodate this obsession it’s necessary for Creevy to overplay the gun law angle of the story to a level that is unrecognisable as a facet of British society, and to devise a politically-fuelled conspiracy that borders on the ludicrous. Despite this apparent fascination with weaponry, it’s noticeable that the most effective moment features a chilling murder which takes place in near-silence rather than during some extended shoot-out in which all involved miss everything they aim at.
Welcome to the Punch isn’t a great movie, and it never quite makes up its mind whether it wants to be a political conspiracy thriller or an action shoot-‘em-up, but it’s still better than a lot of similar movies being produced these days. It makes a refreshing change to see stories like this being played out in Britain, and it’s good to see minor characters — such as Johnny Harris’s ex-soldier of ‘selfless commitment’ and Peter Mullen’s faithful sidekick to Sternwood — given more to do than simply provide background noise before being shot (eventually) in one of those gun battles. But Creevy needs to place these characters in more credible situations and refrain from having them do or say things out of character as a cheat for driving the plot forward if he’s too achieve any real success.