(Eran Creevy, 2013)
Twenty years ago an exciting young British director set out to make a US-style crime thriller in London. That city has its own culture of crime stories, and there have been a handful of classic movies about London's gangland, and numerous successful UK TV shows about cops chasing criminals of varying quality. But that young director, named Danny Cannon, went on in promotional interviews about how his film would compete with Hollywood by looking as good as American films did, how it would be as action-packed and stylish, as slick and fast-moving, how it would have a big name US star in the lead. And it did, sort of. Young Americans, Cannon's 1993 crime thriller, does look nice, for the most part. It is well-shot, and slick. Harvey Keitel plays an American Detective who follows an a criminal (Viggo Mortensen) from the States to London. It is not a particularly good film. The script is derivative and tin-eared, and even a little dull. The American style - which isn't really American at all, but we'll get to that in a second - jars in such a British context, even as the script makes a few lame attempts to address this culture clash. But it got Cannon noticed, proved he could make a smallish budget look like a biggish one, and suggested he knew how to shoot action scenes. So a couple of years later he was directing Judge Dredd, and a few years after that he was establishing the visual template for CSI and directing many episodes of that series.
The style he was aiming for in Young Americans was a slick and glossy look, but it had been, partly, created by a generation of British directors who rose to prominence in the late '70s and early '80s - the likes of Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne and Ridley Scott. Each of these directors was able to make his films look beautiful in a particularly cold, clear fashion. They used filters and established rich, impressionistic colour schemes. The sort of heightened realism favoured by Scott in particular became popular in Hollywood, as directors like his brother Tony and the more ambitious and talented Michael Mann worked in similar registers. By the late '90s a certain sort of approach had become the house style for anything produced by uber-producers Simpson and Bruckheimer, who had younger directors like Michael Bay and Simon West produce a series of thrillers and action movies that are all beautiful in their rich colours, visceral texturing and athmospherics, and are all edited within an inch of incoherence.
Eran Creevy - and perhaps executive producer Ridley Scott - plainly wanted Welcome to the Punch to look like one of those films. More specifically he seems to have wanted it to look like Mann's Heat, perhaps the single greatest cops and robbers film of the last few decades. That film has a uniquely beautiful look: filled with aquamarine blues, rich blacks and burnished metallic textures, it captures Los Angeles in Winter, when the air looks thin and the light is a little paler than usual. It is also the work of a director who is a truly matchless visual stylist and a cinematographer (Dante Spinotti) near the top of his game.
Creevy also wants, like Cannon, to transfer the better qualities of the US thriller to a UK-set example of the genre, to make London look like a dangerous nocturnal city, to make East End gangsters and semi-automatic weapons work well together.
So Creevy sets himself a hard task, and he mostly fails. While Welcome to the Punch generally looks nice, it also looks like just another US cop thriller. Filmed around Canary Wharf, it is a film dominated by cold modern architecture; gleaming steel, shining glass and the flat negative spaces of concrete are layered in many of the shots. But it just looks glossy and a trifle desperate. London has a distinctive visual identity beyond the usual tourist cliches, but instead of capitalising on it,Creevy here transforms it into an anonymous modern city.
The storyline recalls Heat too in its tale of a driven detective (James McEvoy) in pursuit of a hyper-efficient criminal (Mark Strong) and the conspiracy they uncover separately before teaming up to solve it. Creevy stages a couple of decent action scenes, but the film seems to features a minimum of two cliches in every situation, and though it delivers most of them with some aplomb, its all just too familiar and routine to be all that interesting. The best scene is an unorthodox, original one, featuring some awkward rising tension in a little English living room as three men hold an old lady at gunpoint to get at her Grandson, but even here Creevy cannot help himself and has to turn it into a slow motion gunfight.
The cast help make it a mostly enjoyable if forgettable diversion. Strong is as brilliant as ever, and Peter Mullan and Johnny Harris give him excellent support, but McEvoy is badly miscast; he never convinces as a hard man cop or as a driven obsessive, unbalancing the narrative too much in Strong's direction.
In addition, there is a fatal whiff of UK TV cop show here. The photography and soundtrack and direction try supremely hard to mask it, but the actors and script cannot: this feels like just another episode in a long-running series on ITV. Tune in next week for more adventures.