Film review | Welcome to the Punch – James McAvoy & Mark Strong go head to head as cop and crook

Welcome to the Punch - James McAvoy

Writer-director Eran Creevy’s impressive feature film debut, 2008’s Shifty, was a slice of gritty social realism set in a drab London suburb. Follow-up Welcome to the Punch takes place at the heart of the capital and borrows its glossy sheen from the city’s gleaming skyscrapers. Shifty owed a debt to Ken Loach and Shane Meadows; Punch is in thrall to Hong Kong cinema’s heroic bloodshed genre and the Michael Mann of Heat. And like its precursors, Punch pits a doggedly incorruptible cop against a morally ambivalent crook – and shows that they are two side of the same coin.

The film’s prologue finds James McAvoy’s police detective Max Lewinsky trying to out-sprint a motorbike-riding gang of robbers led by Mark Strong’s master criminal Jacob Sternwood.

But the outlaw gets away, leaving Max with a bullet wound in his leg and a burning desire to bring his adversary to justice. Jump ahead three years and their paths cross again when the fugitive Sternwood returns to London on a deeply personal mission.

Jacob Sternwood (MARK STRONG) in WELCOME TO THE PUNCH

The ensuing plot is extremely convoluted, a cat’s cradle tangle of political skulduggery, police corruption and double-dealing crooks – the fact that Strong’s criminal shares a name with the ailing patriarch in the famously complicated The Big Sleep seems all too appropriate.

That this isn’t a coincidence is indicated by the presence of characters called Geiger (The Big Sleep’s blackmailer) and Hawks (its director). Here the names belong to Max’s boss, David Morrissey’s Thomas Geiger, and his partner, Andrea Riseborough’s Sarah Hawks.

These nods and winks to past cinema are nifty, but they don’t do Creevy’s film any favours. His film certainly looks slick and stylish, but the script isn’t solid enough to make the plot convincing. And while Strong has the screen presence for his swaggeringly cool antihero role, McAvoy is miscast. So is London. McAvoy lacks the heft to pull off his bloodied-but-unbowed detective; Creevy’s London, for all its surface dazzle, just doesn’t look right as the arena for the film’s blazing shootouts.

In cinemas from Friday 15th March.

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