FILM: Welcome To The Punch

welcome to the punchTHE BRITISH gangster film, and particularly the London-set variety, is somewhat of a tired genre these days. Occasionally, there is a fresh and dynamic take on it, a Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or a Layer Cake  for example, but there is always the feeling that the latest Danny Dyer film is lurking in the background, waiting to undo any good work. Thankfully, Welcome to the Punch offers said fresh and dynamic take, for this isn’t a cockney gangster film of dingy back allies and obligatory shots of Big Ben and The Gherkin, this is a heavily stylised London of luminous lighting and stainless steel surfaces, sometimes acting as a case of style over substance.

When his son is shot, retired gangster Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong) returns to England, the country he escaped from three years previously. Detective Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy), who had failed to catch Sternwood first time round sees this as an opportunity to make amends and to fight the demons that haunt him since the failed capture. Their relationship is simply our main entry point into a multi-stranded plot that goes much deeper than a simple cat-and-mouse movie. These numerous strands mean that the film does get a bit convoluted, saying this however, there is a great scene that needs all them to work; each strand’s representative character meet in an old ladies living room (don’t ask) that plays out like a passive-aggressive version of the ‘Café Scene’ from Heat, wonderfully suspenseful and darkly comic, it is the film’s standout moment. The comparison with Heat isn’t without merit with the film being Welcome to the Punch’s obvious influence; it is for example deeply stylish; with a look that feels as if every frame has been meticulously planned and deliberated over, you just wish they had used their time tightening up the script.

On the whole, the cast do a great job. Mark Strong reaffirms himself as one of the most consistent British actors working today with a multi-layered performance. Andrea Riseborough pulls off the rarest of treasures; a non-passive, well rounded female role in an action film(!). A who’s who of British drama is used as a solid supporting cast with countless ‘that guy from that film’ actors and actresses, each of whom is given their moment to shine. Saying this however, there is too much emphasis placed on minor characters and while this could have been done deliberately to keep the audience guessing as to where the twist is coming from, when it does arrive it is something of a disappointment. Needless to say, if you don’t see the twist coming then you’re just not trying hard enough. The weak link of the cast is surprisingly McAvoy, who feels miscast as a ‘hard man’ and who never fully convince as the dishevelled and bedraggled detective.

Welcome to the Punch does what it set out to do in replicating the American crime thriller and placing it a British setting. Especially with the short running time there is an overabundance of plot with too many strands vying for attention (a strand regarding London mayoral elections could have been cut completely), there is sometimes the desire for them to concentrate on the complex relationship between Sherwood and Lewinsky as there are some confusing character actions that you feel could have been explained better had they been dwelled upon. Despite the films shortcomings however, it is a good looking, character driven action film that zips along at a nice speed and is a perfectly enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes.