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'Welcome to the Punch' review: James McAvoy stars in British 'Heat'

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Released on Friday, Mar 15 2013

Director: Eran Creevy; Screenwriter: Eran Creevy; Starring: James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Andrea Riseborough, Peter Mullan, Johnny Harris; Running time: 99 mins Certificate: 15


Slick cops and robbers crime movies normally have the domain of Hollywood. While Michael Mann was making a name for himself with tense LA thriller Heat, the British film industry was bracing itself for an influx of geezer gangster flicks thanks to Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

Eran Creevy, who broke through with BAFTA-nominated Shifty in 2008, brings a dash of Hollywood sheen to the UK with his second feature Welcome to the Punch. London's shimmering Canary Wharf skyscrapers and murky docklands provide the backdrop for a game of cat and mouse between rookie detective Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) and Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong).

Max is on the tail of his target in the edge-of-your-seat opening scene. A tense heist sees Sternwood slip through Max's fingers and put a bullet in his pursuer's knee for good measure. In the years that follow, these physical and psychological scars put the brakes on Max's momentum in the police force, while Sternwood spends time in exile under the Northern Lights of Iceland.

James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Welcome to the Punch


When Sternwood's son falls into trouble, he returns to London, giving Max one last shot at taking him down. However, a larger conspiracy looms, bringing a momentary truce between Max and Sternwood as they must work together to save their own skins.

Welcome to the Punch is nimble-footed, glossy entertainment that wears its influences on its sleeve. Writer/director Creevy draws on fast-paced, bullet-riddled John Woo and Tony Scott flicks, along with a heavy dose of Mann's Heat. The parallels between Pacino/De Niro and McAvoy/Strong are quickly evident.

Scratch below the surface, though, and there's not much lurking beneath. The best Hollywood and Hong Kong thrillers zone in on strong storytelling, character and action, but Punch loses sight of the latter two. It's all plot, plot, plot, as Creevy spins an intriguing cops and robbers yarn whose characters never quite pop. Both Andrea Riseborough and David Morrissey have key roles to play, but they're both under-utilised as the focus remains on the two leading men.

James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Welcome to the Punch


The film has its share of memorable quirks, however, such as McAvoy draining his knee of fluid with a syringe and a tense stand-off involving a crook's grandmother. And yet, things never quite click into place. You almost feel like Punch would work much better if it was shot in the US with American actors.

Nevertheless, Creevy's script finds an interesting way to weave hot topic gun laws into its storyline. In doing so, it smartly addresses the cultural and social reasons why the UK film industry isn't known for sleek guns-a-blazing thrillers. If UK cops don't carry guns, then it makes sense that the country's movie output doesn't reflect that.

Welcome to the Punch is a fun ride and breezes by at a brisk pace but, to use a music analogy, it's more like a good Michael Mann cover version than a great thriller in its own right.

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