Review: ‘Welcome to the Punch’ Lets James McAvoy’s Balls Drop
For a movie made for $8.5 million, Welcome to the Punch is strikingly polished. While that’s a prominent amount of cash, writer and director Eran Creevy makes every penny count. For the brisk 93-minute running time, Creevy makes his routine thriller fresh enough to turn the gruff cop “with something to prove” and cool-minded criminal “pulled back in the game” scenario play exceedingly smoothly.
When we’re first introduced to James McAvoy’s Max Lewinsky, he’s in hot pursuit of Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong) and his goons, all of whom are dressed as suavely as possible. Max ignores orders to wait for backup – because whoever waits for backup? – and ends up chasing Sternwood by foot while his team rides off underground on dirt bikes. Max catches up with Sternwood, and the encounter goes as good as it can for the unarmed Max: he ends up with a busted kneecap. From the score to the composition, it’s a fantastic opening that establishes everything we need to know, especially the sleek style of Creevy’s film and his two leads.
What follows is more routine, while also maintaing the opening minutes’ respectable simplicity.Three years after the incident, Max is no longer the hotshot he once was, leaving all the fighting to his partner, Sarah Hawks (Andrea Riseborough). He’s slower, bitter, and has given up on his life, a phase all heroic movie cops must go through. One would think his spirits would pickup when Sternwood appears back on the grid, but he becomes even more reckless and obsessive in his attempt to bring him down.
Sternwood, who returns from his Icelandic getaway after his son is injured in a job gone wrong, ends up being a target of a conspiracy. So does Max. The two inevitably team up to save their own skins, and that’s one of the many appeals of Creevy’s script. They do it out of survival, knowing they can’t figure out what’s going on working alone. There is no banter or friendship between the two. A mild respect forms between them, but that’s about it.
Even if there are no jolly quips between Max and Jacob, there is still fun to be had with the leather-coat-wearing pair. McAvoy chasing Strong and the idea of the two of them teaming up, are, on paper, ridiculous. McAvoy generally hasn’t been associated with raw manliness in the way Strong has, but here he has it in spades. He doesn’t have a macho build or threatening figure, but instead, he boasts a dedicated and unflinching presence which matches Strong’s effortless sense of cool.
The two characters are skilled and can handle thugs in their own ways, so Creevy showing them employing their minds, muscles, and aim to get out of a situation is always impressive. The director certainly knows how to deliver set pieces. Not every action beat revolves around gunfights, but even each shoot-out is paced differently depending on where the mood of the story is at. They’re never grand in terms of scope, but Creevy is brimming with control over geography, pacing, and awfully blue-tinted bullets.
All those shiny gunshots, and the film’s two stars, make Welcome to the Punch a crowd-pleaser with a minimalistic attitude. There’s nothing spectacular about the movie besides, again, that terrific opener, and that’s not a criticism. Creevy does precisely what he needs to in order to string together another piece of entertainment out of the “criminal and the cop find themselves on the same side of the law!” storyline. The film’s conspiracy isn’t all that interesting, but the combo of Strong and McAvoy is.
The Upside: The pairing of McAvoy and Strong; those first ten minutes; a variety of action set pieces; Peter Mullan, playing Jacob’s buddy, and Andrea Riseborough are a notable supporting cast; Jason Flemyng showing up is never not going to make your film cooler; plenty of that James McAvoy scream; wouldn’t mind a sequel.
The Downside: Derivative in many ways; the central mystery’s explanation is somewhat clunky; the mystery isn’t that engaging.
On the Side: Creevy’s script made it onto the 2010 Brit List, which is the English version of The Black List.