Film Review: The Sweeney

Pulpy Brit actioner for die-hard fans of Ray Winstone, whose close-to-camp turn as ’70s TV hero Jack Regan isn’t enough to warrant a booking.

Midway through The Sweeney, defying orders from their commanding officer, all regard for public safety, and humble respect for narrative plausibility, the London police unit known as the Flying Squad, whose mission is to respond to major crimes in progress, confront a trio of bank robbers attempting to make their getaway. In Trafalgar Square. At midday. Automatics and Glocks ablaze, bullets pockmarking the Regency architecture but, miraculously, missing tourists and pigeons, not to mention the young mother pushing a baby carriage, the combatants invade the National Gallery of Art—a venue not nearly as spectacular as the Guggenheim in The International, but a posh place for a shootout nevertheless. And a nice contrast to the climactic car chase that occurs in a trailer park, where the principals get to squeeze off several more magazines while bashing their automobiles into caravans.

The Sweeney, in short, is a steroidal actioner, a laddie film if there is such a genre, featuring the entertaining Ray Winstone as Jack Regan, scurrilous leader of this pack of plainclothes detectives (hoodies and jeans, not suits and ties) who operate by their own rules (with semi-official sanction), mostly in service of the public but sometimes because they like putting in the boot. This lot conducts investigations with ax handles and shoots to thrill, but given the sociopathic nihilists they deal with on a daily basis, it’s all good.

Co-written by John Hodge (Trainspotting) and Nick Love (2009’s The Firm), who also directs, the movie updates the British action-comedy TV series popular in the ’70s, which in turn was modeled on an actual branch of the Metropolitan Police infamous for its corruption and close ties to the underworld. (“The Sweeney,” as in Sweeney Todd, is Cockney rhyming slang for Flying Squad.) The producers brought in British hip-hop artist Ben Drew (also known as Plan B) to attract an audience too young to remember the television program, plus the seductive Hayley Atwell to play Winstone’s Maximesque love interest.

Winstone, showing off his belly to establish his true-bloke bona fides, is game for the festivities but never quite believable as the hard-drinking, in-your-gob, make-my-day crimestopper, although Love and cinematographer Simon Dennis make him appear more agile than his physique suggests, and his closed-cropped hair helps him look fitter than most fifty-something smokers. Rapper Drew plays Winstone’s apprentice sidekick, George, a streetwise young gun with an adrenaline jones and indecipherable accent.

Americans should have subtitles to follow the dialogue, but since The Sweeney’s plot is so hackneyed, the audience is always ahead of the actors regardless. If anything, viewers will wonder why these elite police are so slow-witted. Perhaps its because their supervisors (Steven Mackintosh and “Homeland” star Damian Lewis) haven’t a clue, whether they are considering the liabilities of the squad’s cavalier approach to civil rights or, in what becomes the film’s improbable subplot, what it takes to keep a woman happy (oy, guv’nor, wink wink). Indeed, this is one crime drama in which it’s best not to worry too much about the logic of events unfolding on the screen, or why the coppers hang in spectacular glass-sheathed offices more appropriate for a hedge-fund firm, or why Regan’s geezer informer (Alan Ford) has the skinny on everybody while his digitally savvy colleagues seem incapable of getting their pixels in line. No, The Sweeney is character-driven, or perhaps we should say, matey-driven: You’re in for your round or you had best stay out of the pub.