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4 March 2013

Packing a Punch

Last night, I went to a preview of Eran Creevy's new film Welcome to the Punch at the BFI. There was supposed to be a Q&A with one of the stars, James McAvoy, afterwards but before the film started, we were told that he was sick and wasn't going to make it. It was hard to be too disappointed, though, when Mark Strong showed up at the end along with Creevy and producer Rory Aitken to discuss the film with Chris Hewitt from Empire.

Rolling with the punches: Rory Aitken, Mark Strong, Eran Creevy and Chris Hewitt

I didn't see Creevy's film d├ębut, Shifty, although I didn't exactly avoid it either, and I was drawn to Welcome to the Punch by the impressive cast list and the stylish trailer. The film opens with a slick, stylised night-time chase sequence around the City of London. With the bright lights of the big city, the eerie blue-ish glow and Harry Escott's eerie electronic score, you wonder for a second if you've walked into some kind of Tron prequel. Detective Max Lewinsky (McAvoy) is trying to intercept bad guy Jacob Sternwood (Strong) and his gas-mask-wearing cronies from running off with the spoils of their latest heist. Ignoring orders from his superiors to wait for back up, Lewinsky follows them into an underground car park and tries to knock Sternwood off his motorbike. But unlike Lewinsky, Sternwood has a gun and he isn't afraid to use it. Instead of killing the detective, however, Sterngood's moral code dictates that he "only" shoot him in the knee.

Three years later and Lewinsky is waiting for an opportunity to bring Sternwood in, and luckily for him, Sternwood's teenage son Ruan (Elyes Gabel) has just been picked up at City Airport, bleeding half to death, and taken to hospital. After Lewinsky's new boss Nathan (Daniel Mays) bodges an operation to catch Sternwood at his current hiding place in Iceland, Lewinsky is determined to prove to police chief Thomas Geiger (David Morrissey) that he hasn't lost his edge and is back on top form after his injury. As he and his partner Sarah (Andrea Riseborough) try to put into action a plan to catch Sternwood senior, Lewinsky gradually comes to realise that things are not as straightforward as they seem (are they ever? Cf Broken City and pretty much every other crime thriller), as some of his colleagues turn out to have links to Sternwood and his associates. Meanwhile, Geiger wants to force the government to allow his Raid Squad (invented by Creevy, but based on the Flying Squad) to be allowed to carry weapons, which means schmoozing his ambitious former press officer Jane (Natasha Little), now the campaign manager for the shadow home secretary.

Welcome to the Punch manages to pack in the punches in its 100-minute length. It blurs the boundaries between the goodies and the baddies, and Sternwood and Lewinsky, despite operating on opposite sides of the law, turn out to have more in common than they might have thought. It's a violent film, but the violence is often very stylised, with some scenes borrowing heavily from the likes of Guy Ritchie. I enjoyed the first hour or so but the final act, and particularly the last fifteen minutes, felt too rushed—the big reveal of what exactly has been going on and why took up roughly 30 seconds of dialogue and is complicated enough that I wanted to make a flowchart. More character development might have been nice too. In fact, in the original version of Creevy's script, there was a lot more back story of the two leads. Sternwood had regular panic attacks, for example, and we found out more about what happened to his wife that led him to be estranged from his son—an event that also gave him more in common with Lewinsky, apparently. These scenes were filmed but cut. As Mark Strong put it in the Q&A, you have to find a balance between maintaining the momentum of an action-driven film and creating credible, multilayered characters. Creevy said that Strong and McAvoy's acting was good enough that the back story wasn't needed. I'm inclined to disagree but I tend to prefer the "thriller" to the "action" element of these films...

That isn't to say there aren't things to like about Welcome to the Punch. The acting is generally great, with the two leads and, of course, David Morrissey standing out, with good performances from Johnny Harris as henchman #1, and Peter Mullan as Sternwood's best friend and trusted advisor. When I first saw Mullan's character sitting in the back of a car, I thought for a second it was Alan Sugar, but that may be because of all of the long, sweeping shots of the London skyline, particularly of the City and Canary Wharf and particularly by night, just like the opening credits of The Apprentice. And in general, the film is slick and sexy and definitely fulfils what Creevy kept describing in the Q&A as the "aspirational thriller" he sought to make.

Other things that emerged in the Q&A included the difficulty of gaining permission to film in Canary Wharf and the City. They were initially turned down, as the powers that be were worried about the film portraying criminals running amok in their 'hood, but in the end, they liked the vision and decided the film would probably be good PR. Having Ridley Scott on board as executive producer probably didn't hurt either. Strong talked about the training warehouse, which housed all sorts of different weapons—most of them decommissioned. He was encouraged to pick the weapons he thought his character would use. Then, he had to get a trainer. "I thought I was old enough to have avoided [films that require] that," he said. There is a fight scene between his and McAvoy's characters in the back of a van, where stunt doubles and choreography would have been too difficult, so they just went for it, apparently. Meanwhile, Creevy talked about stepping up from a £100,000 film to something like Welcome to the Punch, with a bigger, bigger-name cast and so much more to balance. He had to learn to adapt to the needs of each actor, from Harris's high-octane, slightly scary and very sweary on-set press-ups to Riseborough's desire to be called by her character's name whenever cameras were rolling, and Mark "I'm quite zen" Strong, who knows how to pace himself.

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