Welcome to the Punch (UK 2013)

Max (James McAvoy) and Sternwood (Mark Strong)

Max (James McAvoy) and Sternwood (Mark Strong)

This is a strange film. Writer-director Eran Creevy describes it as a “cops and robbers film'” and tells us that it developed from his love for the Hong Kong ‘heroic bloodshed’ pictures of the late 1980s/early 1990s by directors such as John Woo and Ringo Lam. Quentin Tarantino has already exploited the genre but Creevy offers something new in his setting of the action in Canary Wharf with new images of ‘London noir‘. One undoubted success of the film is that it follows the old maxim of “put your money on the screen”. Creevy and his producers/collaborators got their chance to make a London action film after just one calling-card production, the £100,000 Shifty in 2008. Creevy comes from a background of work in advertising and music video and with his cinematographer Ed Wild has achieved a compelling look for Welcome to the Punch. Whether a good look is enough without a coherent script is another question.

Welcome to the Punch was released in the UK in March 2013 but it seemed to disappear quite quickly and I missed it. The DVD is now out and it includes both a Q&A at BFI Southbank and a ‘Making Of’, both with Creevy in expansive mood. We learn, for instance, that the original script was 180 pages and that this was eventually almost halved in length. This perhaps explains some of the mysteries about the back story. The film opens with a prologue featuring a carefully-planned robbery in Canary Wharf in which the four robbers are escaping, only to be impeded by a single police officer acting against orders to wait for back-up. This is Max (James McAvoy) who finds himself up against the leader of the quartet, Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong). Sternwood decides not to kill Max and escapes with the others. The plot then picks up a few years later when Max has returned to work with a new partner, Sarah (Andrea Riseborough). Sternwood is living in a remote area of Iceland and Max still wants to ‘take him down’ but his bosses want to restrain Max and they have other ideas about how to use the developing situation to capture Sternwood. What follows is a convoluted story about police corruption, politics and the private security industry, at the centre of which is an almost separate narrative about the strange relationship between Max and Sternwood, likened by several commentators to the Pacino-De Niro story in Michael Mann’s Heat.

Many audiences appear to have given up on the various plot developments, complaining that the film doesn’t make sense. The film’s strange title is partly explained in the plot but still strikes me as unnecessarily obtuse. I get the sense that the film would have been stronger if Creevy had either started again, or given the ideas to someone else, in either case beginning to write within a 90-100 minute framework.

One of Creevy’s problems is that, although UK police are now armed when approaching dangerous criminals, suspected ‘terrorists’ etc., they don’t routinely carry arms. To replicate Hong Kong gunplay scenarios, Creevy creates a special force equipped with an array of weapons who can indulge in extended shooting matches. This is certainly not the socially realist British police procedural, but also it isn’t an out and out fantasy like James Bond. At one point we are offered a scene almost like those in The Ladykillers with Peter Mullan menacing Ruth Sheen as the mother of one of the villains in a chintzy room in the East End. I fear that a very strong cast (including Daniel Mays and David Morrissey) is rather wasted as all the attention is focused on the central pairing.

The most important aspect of the film’s production is the way that it exemplifies how the industry now works. Shifty was one of the films selected for Film London’s Microwave scheme. Although he had to make that film for only £100,000, Shifty saw Creevy ‘mentored’ by Asif Kapadia. He was forced to hone the film’s narrative and to think carefully about what he could do with the money. The critical success of that film saw Creevy nominated for two major British awards (BAFTA/BIFA) and win two other film festival awards. This must be one of the reasons why Ridley Scott was prepared to ‘present’ the film for his Scott Free Productions. This obviously helped the film get stars of the quality of James McAvoy and Mark Strong (who has worked with Scott on productions such as Robin Hood and Body of Lies). Eran Creevy clearly has talent and the story ideas behind this production alongside the original ideas about settings (Canary Wharf companies took some persuading to allow shooting) could have made the film memorable. The script seems to me to be the weak point – as it is too often in British productions.

It might be worth discussing this film alongside Danny Boyle’s Trance. The films have similar London noir settings and both have James McAvoy in the lead. I like McAvoy but I still have problems with his physical presence as a male action lead – he’s as short as I am, but he also has some visible strength. Perhaps I should remember Alan Ladd? Filth, out this week, may solidify his leading man reputation. Unfortunately both Trance and Welcome to the Punch fail to develop their female characters and that’s something Eran Creevy might want to think about.

Here is a PowerPoint presentation on a case study of Eran Creevy as an example of current film production in the UK: WelcomePunch3

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