British film has many forms, but it’s period dramas and social realism we often still think of first when seeking to epitomise its cinematic identity.
Directors of the stature of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh continue to cast a long shadow over the British film landscape. But while much of their output is justifiably revered this narrow focus ignores those other figures whose work has helped to shape 21st Century British cinema.
The likes of Danny Boyle, Michael Winterbottom and Shane Meadows owe much to Loach and Leigh (as well as other talismanic figures such as Alfred Hitchcock, Nicolas Roeg and Lindsay Anderson) and have themselves opened the door for a slew of exciting young directors.
Eran Creevy marked himself out four years ago with the ultra low-budget urban thriller Shifty, a highly promising debut funded by Film London’s Microwave scheme that won him a Bafta and the attention of Ridley Scott, who came on board as executive producer for Creevy’s sophomore feature.
The partnership with Scott makes perfect sense when watching Welcome to the Punch, a super-slick crime drama that belies its minimal budget and polishes London up to look like New York.
London provides the canvas on which the blood and bullets of the film are painted. Ex-criminal Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong) must return to the Big Smoke when his son is involved in a botched heist, giving obsessed cop Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) one last chance to bring his quarry to justice.
Although Michael Mann is an obvious touchstone for the film (specifically his epic crime thriller Heat, wherein the cop and criminal who are two sides of the same coin), Creevy owes an equally big debt to Scott.
Just as Scott has a penchant for using extreme levels of lighting, Creevy bathes each frame with light, much of it artificial due to most of the film being shot at night. Indeed London has rarely looked quite so mouth-watering (or so empty – seriously, where the hell is all the traffic, especially in the well-staged opening robbery?) and is arguably the most important character in Welcome to the Punch, in much the same way that Scott utilises cityscapes to emphasise many of his stories.
One area where Creevy doesn’t reflect Scott, however, is in his use of female characters. While Scott has G.I. Jane, Ripley and Thelma and Louise, Welcome to the Punch‘s most prominent female is Lewinsky’s plucky partner Sarah Hawks who, despite Andrea Riseborough’s galant efforts remains an underwritten token effort on the writer-director’s part.
It’s the script and characters where the film falls down most. Creevy’s tried so hard to give us a crime drama with the look of a Hollywood budget, he’s also fallen prey of the two-dimensional characterisation and clichéd dialogue that has blighted so many American films of this genre.
Lewinsky’s the kind of cop who’ll disobey orders to get his man, but is warned he’s getting “too close” to the case and is told: “You’re obsessed; you’re not thinking straight.” Likewise, David Morrissey gets an equally cringeworthy humdinger when, as senior cop Thomas Grainger he tells Lewinsky to “take him [Sternwood] down this time … take him down hard”.
A starry British cast rise above the creaky dialogue, especially the ever-reliable Strong and Peter Mullan as Sternwood’s lieutenant Roy Edwards, while the usually unengaging McAvoy does just about enough to avoid looking like he’s channeling The Professionals.
What the film lacks in originality and a good script it makes up for in pace and the impressive set pieces. It’s here Creevy borrows heaviest from Mann, with the opening robbery nodding to Heat‘s incredible central bank heist and the skilfully handled nightclub gunfight (the best scene in the film) owing a debt to Collateral.
Creevy is clearly a director with an eye for style and an ability to make a small budget go a long way, but just as L.A. Takedown was Mann’s dry run for Heat, it remains to be seen whether Welcome to the Punch is going to be a dress rehearsal for something better.