Welcome to the Punch starts off with brio: Masked motorcycling villains escaping a bank heist with no small amount of panache in London’s Canary Wharf (a place which must seem far more exotic to those who haven’t had to spend much time there: those who have will wonder what they could possibly expect to nick. Inside information? Concealed line items on a balance sheet?)
In any case, hard on their heels is young firebrand detective Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy, wispily bearded and with a touch of an effete Russell Crowe about him). Defying Sarge’s orders, Max goes after the villains unarmed and on foot and, despite giving a good account of himself, winds up with his knee shot out and whimpering for mercy. Master villain Jacob Sternwood (a commendably hard bastard Mark Strong) stares Max down over a smoking muzzle but, for reasons that remain unexplained (beyond simple dramatic imperative), neglects to finish him off.
And so begins Max’s trouble. And, for that matter, Jacob’s. Thus our heist thriller is seeded, stuffed stem to stern with archetypal features of its genre.
We roll forward three years to find Max harbouring bitter resentments, a symbolic suppurating injury and a nasal Cockney accent with which he and his Flying Squad brethren telegraph the plot background to each other, on occasion gently offending our intelligence by explaining things which ought to be obvious.
Andrea Riseborough, last seen by this reviewer stomping moodily around the welsh foothills in Resistance, is Max’s new partner Sarah. She also cleaves mostly to stereotype but dials the glamour back to nought, adding a dash of Estuary harshness instead.
Though their relationship hails from central scripting, it is still hard to fathom. McAvoy and Riseborough are talented actors, but they have little to work with and struggle to imbue their screen partnership with much plausibility.
The villains on display have a far better time of it. We admire Sternwood’s taciturn machismo (somewhere between Ray Winstone and Vinnie Jones), possibly a bit much. From an early stage, we pull for him when he escapes by the light of the Aurora Borealis and his exploding Icelandic chalet hideout (another ostensibly exotic locale: Perhaps he was planning a job on Kaupthing?)
By contrast, there is no chance of admiring Johnny Harris’s ex SAS nutcase Dean Warns who is deliciously nasty. Harris gives him a nicely sociopathic facial twitch – a sort of a half smile which collapses under its own weight – and is genuinely menacing in his bearing. The look of terror on Riseborough’s face as they face off may be testament to her method acting, but may just be because she’s genuinely scared of him. I was.
Completing the set for the modern British crime thriller there’s also political intrigue in the shape of a lazily drawn hard right Tory party, campaigning on a platform of armed police.
The plot which then unfolds, encapsulating all of the above, is suitably Byzantine, but there are no prizes for guessing who is behind it all.
You may have surmised already that I didn’t care enormously for Welcome to the Punch, and in sum I didn’t, though there are plenty of its parts to admire. To be sure it is a well-edited, handsomely photographed picture, immersed in an underexposed, bruised blue tone that makes all the characters look sick. You may even let the stock dialogue pass if you’re not the eye rolling type.
But all the same, in an already well-populated genre where even the TV shows are of high quality you need to do something special to stand out. Welcome to the Punch rarely meets that challenge. Nor is it, as it should be, leavened by enough humour (one delightful scene with Dean Warn’s Gran aside, which makes plain what was missing from the rest of the film).
There are just too many careworn devices here. Bent coppers. The shadowy corporate arms dealers. Villains targeting a key witness in hospital by dressing up as doctors. And all is framed by a screenplay which may make sense (and even be ingenious) as a exercise in logistics, but often lacks plain common sense. The characters hit their marks and follow the stage directions demanded by the screenplay, when often the directions make no sense at all.
Welcome to the Punch is by no means a bad evening at the movies, but with dramas like Wallander and Prime Suspect filling television schedules it is hard to see its unique selling proposition.
Welcome to the Punch is in cinemas 15th march 2013.
Director: Eran Creevy
Starring: James McAvoy, Andrea Riseborough, Mark Strong, Johnny Harris
Running Time: 99 Minutes