Wednesday, March 13, 2013

‘Welcome to the Punch’ (2013) directed by Eran Creevy

Putting Hot Fuzz in the same sentence as Welcome to the Punch is a horrendous disservice to Edgar Wright’s brilliant comedy, yet it’s a comparison that must be made.  Welcome to the Punch is, disastrously, pretty much Hot Fuzz played straight.  At the core of Punch is a reasonable enough idea, let’s make a gritty, glossy, action-packed US style crime caper, but set in the heart of London.  With a cast made up of hot British talent like James McAvoy, Mark Strong and Andrea Riseborough, you’d have to try pretty hard to screw this up.  Yet screw it up writer/director Eran Creevy does!  Quite spectacularly too.

This is a London set tale of.. well, it’s difficult to say really.  This is the kind of film where the very fact that there is a mystery is supposed to be enough to engage the audience.  Who shot this one guy, and does it tie into some kind of political campaign?  And what’s the deal with this beardy guy?  I suspect the underlying story is actually fairly straightforward, but the way Creevy presents it makes it intensely confusing. And not the fun kind of confusing either, the boring kind, the kind where you find yourself sitting in a cinema lost in thought trying to work out if you’re going to have Chinese or Indian food afterwards.  Or maybe Thai.. you know, I heard there’s a good place called the Orchid something or other just up the road, maybe it’d be worth checking tha.. oh, right, the film! 

Tortured antihero Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy).  Damn, that's some inner pain right there.
James McAvoy plays Max Lewinsky, a perpetually scowling loose cannon detective plays by his own rules.  He's a patchwork doll sewn together from an infinite number of other grumpy, depressed detective cliches, as soon as you see him you know exactly what kind of played out character this is.  He’s disillusioned! Angry!  Lashing out at the world!  He’s a ladies man but he won’t let anyone close to him!  He wears a leather jacket!  He’s a maverick chief, but dammit, he gets the job done.  But there is one thing that truly sets him apart from other miserable detectives - he's got a sore knee.  

Yes, this is a hero cop tortured not by drink or drugs, but rather by an oedematous knee that he must drain periodically with a hypodermic syringe.  Fortunately, while McAvoy lumbers around the set grimacing in the dramatic scenes, it doesn’t seem to bother him too much when he's running and leaping after people, except, obviously when it’s dramatically convenient for his knee to play up. If any lesson can be learned from this film, it is that giving a character a sore knee is no substitute for a personality.

It’s vexing to see McAvoy screw up this bad.  I’ve liked him in pretty much everything I’ve seen him in, but frankly, he just can’t pull off a dangerous, grizzled antihero.  There’s a whiff of the public schoolboy about him, and his cockerney accent comes and goes depending on how angry he is.  The stupid looking beard doesn't help either. Knowing how great he usually is makes this ritual humiliation a little hard to watch, so I guess it's for his own sanity he frequently slips into parody mode, acting not unlike Simon Pegg’s Nicholas Angel.  

Gangster something or other Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong).  
The rest of the cast is similarly rubbish.  Mark Strong plays career criminal Jacob Sternwood, a role that requires nothing more of him than occasionally furrowing his brow in annoyance.  He’s a non-character, talked up by everyone else as a legend but showing very little evidence of it on screen.  Andrea Riseborough’s Sarah is also a nonentity, given even less to do.  Women in this film get pretty short shrift, their characters ranging from the dour, to the manipulative to the obliviously dotty.  It’s Riseborough that gets the worst of it though, playing a role written by a man who clearly can’t write a realistic female character to save his life.  Cringe as she sluts herself out for information!  Roll your eyes as she falls for our irresistible anti-hero!  Roll your eyes harder as predictably she ends up figuratively stuffed into a fridge.

To be fair to the cast, these cardboard characters are at the mercy of an incredibly ropey script with some of the clumsiest expository dialogue I’ve heard in a long time.  You try saying delivering a line like “As you know Max, I am the chief press liaison for the Shadow Home Secretary” and make it sound off the cuff.  On top of this everything is delivered in a throaty, gruff growl, accompanied by squinted eyes and the occasional meaningful stare off into the mid-distance.

Sarah (Andrea Riseborough).  I can't think of anything interesting to say about this character.
But what tips Welcome to the Punch from 'merely' bad to cinematic disaster is the way it attempts to say something important.  A thread running right through the film are the effects of guns, gun crime and wondering whether the police should be armed.  Creevy tries to have it both ways.  On one hand he's pained to show us the effects of guns: the protagonist’s sore knee being dwelled on at length.  Looking at this knee, you realise a single shot from a gun can change a life forever, no matter where it hits you.  There are no minor gunshot wounds.  The effects of a single bullet reverberate through society like the ripples caused when a pebble is thrown into a tranquil pond.  A sober thought in a genre where bullets are usually thrown like confetti.

But, then on the other hand - holy shit guys guns are fuckin cool!  Check out this sweet machine gun blam blam blam, and this shotgun!  CA-CHIK! Woah, TOTES amazing.  Hey.. hey, let’s pump the bass on the gunshots, and slow everything right down so you can see every dust mote swirl from these ricochets. Oh no! That cool guy got shot... oh wait.. just in the shoulder?!  Fuhgeddabaddit - get up and SHOOT SOME MORE FACELESS BAD GUYS!!  Man, what did I ever have against guns?!  These things ROCK!

Check out my gun.  P cool rite?
Ordinarily I’d find a film that explores the idea of arming the police while spooging over how cool guns are dangerously hypocritical.  Don’t get me wrong, Welcome to the Punch is hypocritical, but it’s also pretty damn stupid, which mitigates any damage it could do.  Thankfully, it’s too poorly constructed to influence anybody either way, and anyway, it never comes to anything remotely close to a conclusion, plotwise or thematically.

Late in the film, a surprising thing happens.  There's actually a scene that works.  Punch is so achingly po-faced for the vast majority of its run time that there's no room for humour.  But unexpectedly, for a minute or two it realises how ridiculous it's being, and magically, the audience  becomes engaged.  The actors look like they're having a good time, there's even a flash of humour in the direction, with some pretty funny pans between the characters.  There's genuine giggles from the previously sullenly silent audience.  But the moment is fleeting, and soon we're back to monosyllabic grunting and rubbish blue lighting.  This, weirdly, seems to indicate that the rubbishness of the rest of the film must be a conscious stylistic choice rather than what I'd presumed to be total incompetence.  The film is sadistically teasing us, demonstrating that it's perfectly capable of being fun and entertaining, but chooses not to be.  

Our heroes heroically stride to work.  Wow.  So renegade.
One alright scene aside, Welcome to the Punch is a deeply shit film.  This is a bit depressing: Eran Creevy is directing his own script, he’s clearly got a decent budget, a bevvy of incredibly talented actors; Ridley Scott producing and London as his backdrop, one of the most dynamic and iconic cities in the world!  And this, this pile of cliched, laughable shite is the best he can do?!   What a wasted opportunity.


Welcome to the Punch is on general release from March 15th

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