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Non-Review Review: Welcome to the Punch

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

Welcome to the Punch is a weird best, a sort of a hybrid that runs on a engine built of mismatched parts. It’s very clearly a distinctly British film. the presence of Mark Strong and James McAvoy attests to that, let alone the supporting cast composed of people like Daniel Mays, Jason Flemyng, Davide Morrissey, Peter Mullen and Andrea Riseborough. However, it’s constructed in the style of an American action movie, with lots of guns, explosions and chases. It’s a very strange cocktail, and Welcome to the Punch suffers because it doesn’t blend the strength of both schools of thrillers. It feels rather clumsily, and rather hastily, thrown together without any real thought as to what the final composition might turn out like.

Top gun...

Top gun…

This is most obvious in the gun control subplot. One of the most obvious distinctions between American action movies and British or Irish counterparts is the sheer volume of firepower on display. The single must incongruous aspect of the otherwise remarkably believable Dublin seen in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire concerned the depiction of Irish law enforcement, equating the Emergency Response Unit with the stock American S.W.A.T. team. Welcome to the Punch really wants to be a big bombastic American action movie, but that means there are certain elements that have to be present.

There has to be a lot of firepower. There has to be a lot of explosions. There has to be chunks of wall blowing all over the place, and bullet holes so large you could fit your fingers through them. There has to be an army of faceless goons for our heroes to confront and defeat. There has to be an abundance of firefights. These elements are fairly standard in an American blockbuster, but they seem surreal in a film about a British police force. So Welcome to the Punch comes up with what should be an ingenious solution: it writes the guns into the plot, explicitly.

This situation's getting a bit hairy...

This situation’s getting a bit hairy…

Welcome to the Punch is saturated with references to gun violence and culture. We’re told that gun violence is up seventeen percent, that it now compares unfavourably to the United States. There are discussions about whether police officers should carry firearms. The introductory sequence actually introduces Max Lewinsky practicing the genre conventions of a British police thriller (that is, beating a suspect with his fists). However, when chasing a bunch of armed robbers, he is advised, “Do not pursue them unarmed.”

The central plot of the film concerns guns, and a conspiracy involving firearms. It’s a logical way of justifying how the cast can blow up sets in a way that would make an American summer blockbuster feel jealous, but it’s all superficial. If you are going to make your action movie about guns, then you really need to figure out what you want to say about guns. It’s not enough to make them a focal point of the plot, you actually have to do something with the idea of gun use and gun control.

Strong men...

Strong men…

Superficially, Welcome to the Punch adopts a position against guns. In that the bad guys tend to use them, or smuggle them, or try to sell them. From that association – the bad guys think guns are good – you might be inclined to believe that the film has an obvious anti-gun subtext to it. There’s any number of arguments that could be made for maintaining a mostly unarmed police force, but Welcome to the Punch never bothers articulating any. It seems to expect the fact that the bad guys are trigger-happy is supposed to support an argument about gun use. The fact that the sinister conspiracy wants a particular outcome makes that outcome inherently bad.

However, this position is undermined by the film itself. Throughout the film, the police are repeatedly shown to be easy to maim and kill when they are unarmed. Max Lewinsky is forced to take on a team of armed robbers using only a pipe – it does not end well for him. Another police officer is placed in a situation that would be easily resolved with a firearm. Unfortunately, there’s no firearm to hand, and the consequences are brutal.

It's not quite out of the park...

It’s not quite out of the park…

More than that, though, the film wallows in the gunplay to an extent that’s hard to believe the film actually believes that unregulated firearm usage might be a bad thing, despite the lip service it pays to the idea. The entire gun control plot exists simply to justify the fact that most of the cast are waving large weapons at each other, as you would expect in a big action movie. It creates a “guns are cool” subtext that defeats the purpose of building a plot explicitly around how guns are bad. This is the biggest problem with Welcome to the Punch, but it’s also indicative of its other issues.

The cast is pretty fantastic. That’s one of the virtues of using a British action movie cast. Because British film doesn’t have as distinct a delineation between “popcorn” movies and more cerebral fare, actors tend to move a bit more fluidly. James McAvoy appeared in Atonement, and he’s able to balance that with movies like Wanted. So Welcome to the Punch might aspire to be a British version of an American “popcorn” film, but it has a much stronger cast than something like The Last Stand.

Doesn't hit the target...

Doesn’t hit the target…

You might imagine the film would play to this unique strength – an action film with a phenomenal central cast. Instead we don’t get characters as much as archetypes. None of the actors are well-served by the script. McAvoy and Strong make it through with a certain amount of dignity, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for Andrea Riseborough. Riseborough is a phenomenal actress (seriously, check out Shadow Dancer), and he’s relegated to a two-dimensional thankless role here.

The characters don’t exist as interesting in their own right. They are simply plot functions and archetypes. Max has an injury because a protagonist in a film like this needs to be bitter, not because it serves a thematic point or enhances his character. Sarah has a habit of writing on her wrist because it is something that will inevitably pay off at some point in the future. It really is a movie put together in the style of a paint-by-numbers kit.

Parting shot...

Parting shot…

I do feel like I’m being a little harsh. Eran Creevy might not be the strongest writer, but he can handle a decent action scene. Creevy began his career as an award-winning music video director, so it’s no surprise that he works best in scenes that rely on strong and quick visuals rather than dialogue or development. The opening scene is absolutely lovely, set as it is to the score by Harry Escott. It flows relatively quickly and brutally, and it conveys ideas relatively well. It’s short and it’s snappy, giving us everything that we need to know. However, Creevy struggles a bit with basic plotting and exposition, and doesn’t know what to do with his characters when they aren’t running or fighting.

Welcome to the Punch could be an exciting and compelling mish-mash of two very different genres. Instead, it just feels like a mismatch.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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