Eran Creevy's 2009 debut feature, Shifty, was a microbudget marvel that dodged lad-crime cliche to tell a unique, moving tale of male friendship. By turns raw and poignant, it made one wonder what the writer-director would do if he had millions, as opposed to thousands, of pounds at his disposal. And, as it turns out, Welcome To The Punch is the answer: a fast-paced, action-packed crime thriller that mixes up a palette of Asian and Hollywood genre influences and splashes it onto a London-centric canvas.
As the film opens, young buck Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) is flying solo through a deserted Canary Wharf in hot pursuit of top-drawer criminal Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong). But when he finally catches up with his prey, he finds that tenacity doesn’t amount to a hill of beans when your foe has one thing you sorely lack - a gun. For all his puffed-up bravado, Lewinsky is left kneecapped and emasculated, until, years later, Sternwood is spotted skulking around London once more, offering him a chance to reclaim his manhood.
For all its passion and drive, Welcome To The Punch lacks an identity of its own. You can’t fault Creevy’s faithful recreation of Michael Mann’s electric-blue skylines or, in one or two stand-out scenes, John Woo's acrobatic gunplay, but when Lewinsky and Sternwood hit upon a conspiracy that’s bigger than their own petty feud and form an unlikely alliance, thereby adding Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs to the already bulging list of citations, it might just be one nod too far.
Likewise, there’s something baldly pre-Wire about the script’s outmoded, masculine themes of ego, integrity and betrayal, and an ongoing thread that questions whether outgunned bobbies need to be armed is resolutely swept aside when even Skins alum Daniel Kaluuya - whose character seems to be interning at the Met - is seen packing heat.
However, what elevates Welcome To The Punch above the ranks of straight-to-DVD Danny Dyer vehicles is its superb cast. McAvoy and Strong make a compelling ying-yang double act - one barely-contained, the other cool-and-collected - while the rest of the ensemble is essentially a British cinema who’s-who, featuring Peter Mullan, Andrea Riseborough, David Morrissey, Jason Flemyng and even Sightseers’ Steve Oram in a two-line cameo. They may not be filling out the most nuanced characters (Riseborough’s mouthy cockney copper becomes a victim far too quickly), but they make sure that Welcome To The Punch never gets boring.
In a nutshell: This flawed, yet watchable action homage doesn't quite live up to its gun-toting influences, but a marvellous roster of Grade-A Brits tips the scales in Welcome To The Punch's favour.
By Michael Leader