Review: Welcome To the Punch
PLOT: Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) is a young cop who’s badly wounded in a showdown with master thief Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong). Years later, Sternwood, who’s living in exile, is forced to come back to Britain when his son is mortally wounded in a heist gone wrong. Lewinsky is hot on his trail, but the two may have a common enemy...
REVIEW: WELCOME TO THE PUNCH is one of the dozens of movies that quietly hit theaters and VOD every month with very little buzz and no hype. Despite the high-profile cast (including not only McAvoy and Strong, but also rising star Andrea Riseborough and the great Peter Mullan), and Ridley Scott’s name attached as an executive producer, WELCOME TO THE PUNCH is getting a very quiet release, and when I got the screener I honestly didn't expect much beyond an average potboiler.
Turns out, WELCOME TO THE PUNCH absolutely knocked my socks off! Defying my initial expectations, PUNCH ended up being a really solid homage to a by-gone genre of shoot-em-up's called “heroic bloodshed.” This style ruled Hong Kong cinema in the eighties and nineties, with director John Woo and star Chow Yun-Fat being the undisputed masters of the genre, before Woo exported it to the U.S with FACE/OFF. PUNCH’s director, Eran Creevy seems heavily inspired by Woo’s HK output, specifically THE KILLER and HARD-BOILED.
In some ways, McAvoy and Strong are playing variations on the parts played by Danny Lee and Chow in THE KILLER, which to me stands as one of the best action movies ever made. Obviously this isn't nearly as good, but it's a strong effort nonetheless. McAvoy is the tough cop- similar to Lee, with the small-statured McAvoy looking and acting ferocious throughout, like a pit bull. Meanwhile, Strong is tall, cool, and surprisingly warmhearted anti-hero, just like Chow Yun-Fat’s remorseful assassin. The killer with a heart-of-gold thing isn't new, but Strong really suits the part, and the two of them play an intriguing game of cat and mouse.
Meanwhile, each man has a confidante. McAvoy’s is Riseborough as his ambitious partner, although the predictable sexual tension is downplayed. Strong’s is an older, wiser thief- played by Mullan- who’s gone straight and raised a family, but is brought back into the underworld due to a debt of loyalty to Strong. Usually known for his work in sober dramas like TYRANNOSAUR and RED RIDING, Mullan seems surprisingly comfortable in an action movie, and looks cool wielding a machine gun (a prerequisite of the genre).
Of course, if I’m comparing WELCOME TO THE PUNCH to THE KILLER, you can reasonably assume it’s packed with some heavy-duty gunfights, and PUNCH has at least four really good ones. Creevy apparently filmed this for under $10 million, but you’d never know it, as the shoot-outs are epic, and expertly shot. Both McAvoy and Strong make convincing action heroes, bringing the same kind of physicality to the gun-play that Chow Yun-Fat made famous. Creevy also has a good eye for action, and the digital photography by DP Ed Wild is excellent, giving this a cool, urban look. The pounding score by Harry Escott (who also composed the SHAME soundtrack) is also very effective.
Granted, the story isn't really anything you haven't seen before. Other than the dogged cop hunting the slick crook (which in addition to Woo, owes a big debt to Michael Mann's HEAT), there's a MacGuffin about cops and gunrunners that's mostly just an excuse for carnage. PUNCH also takes a little while to really kick into high-gear, but from a nightclub shootout about forty minutes in, it grabs you by the balls and doesn't let go until the credits roll. It's also really nice seeing actors of McAvoy, Strong and Mullan's stature in an action flick, which makes PUNCH something I'm surprised so many critics seem to be writing off.
While there's very little hype surrounding it, WELCOME TO THE PUNCH is getting a VOD release, so it'll be easily accessible (at least in the US) at the end of the week. Anyone that likes a good cops and robbers story or a solid action flick needs to give this a try. It's a really well-done throwback to a very genuine type of action film-making that's free of the cynicism that's present in too many recent entries into the genre. No matter how much of an audience PUNCH ends up finding, it marks director Eran Creevy as a director to watch.