Ignoring such travesties as The Keith Lemon Movie (don’t ask), British filmmaking has enjoyed something of a revival over the past two years. The Sweeney, a present-day adaptation of a popular ’70s tv programme about ‘ard as nails cockney coppers in fast cars and kipper ties, marks a bold attempt to offer an alternative to Hollywood action blockbusters, infused with a distinctly local sensibility.
Director Nick Love’s prior filmography does not inspire confidence. The Firm, Outlaw and The Football Factory tediously glamourised hooliganism and brutality, while his two-time acting collaborator Danny Dyer is now best known for offhandedly suggesting in his Zoo magazine advice column that a man slash his ex-girlfriend’s face. The Sweeney doesn’t break Love’s bad habits, but is at least technically proficient and occasionally ambitious enough to show a director looking to challenge himself.
Director: Nick Love
Running time: 112mins
Considering the movie’s extensive time in development hell, which saw the production budget slashed by two thirds, Sweeney looks terrific. This is as much a city story as Christoper Nolan’s Batman trilogy or Michael Mann’s Heat, the latter a strong referenced inspiration, and Love takes his audience on a full London tour, from the City’s glass palaces to the gritty East End neighbourhoods. The economic divide between the city’s two faces is an undercurrent throughout: Jack Regan’s team of rough and ready coppers clash with snobby bankers and high ranking Metropolitan police bureaucrats looking to discredit them. Regan’s partner and best friend, George Carter, is a council house thug turned good. It’s a shame this is never put to any notable thematic use, but gives the story a timeliness which intelligently repositions the television series’ working class roots.
Nuance isn’t Love’s forte, and his handling of the squad’s violent methods indicates more awed admiration than measured debate. You have to wonder what the families of Ian Tomlinson, Jean Charles de Menezes, or Hillsborough tragedy victims (all instances of police murder where the officers in question were subsequently, unjustifiably, cleared) would make of a movie which sees corruption and thuggery as a positive among law enforcers. There are hints Jack is suffering for a life spent in battle, with no stable home or family life, but they feel separate from the main story and strike an uncomfortable contrast to how the rest of his squad see Jack as a hero for his willingness to beating up suspects without evidence. The television series didn’t shy away from having its protagonists indulge in wanton violence, but apart from the difference in moral standards between the ’70s and now, presented itself with enough flair and wit to let viewers know they weren’t supposed to be taking it seriously. Love’s film misjudges its tone and seems under the impression it is making a statement. Daily Mail devotees will love it.
The plot is equally baffling, twisting and turning every ten minutes before ending back more or less where it started. I’ve read a synopsis of the movie since seeing it and still am not entirely sure what was supposed to be happening, despite the abundance of exposition. Fortunately, Love has put together a strong cast which keeps the movie watchable even when barely comprehensible. Ray Winstone has been playing this sort of part for years, but it’s fun to see him indulge in a lead role, even with the questionable characterisation. Ben Drew, aka rapper Plan B, offers solid support, although his drawled, slightly monotone delivery may prove difficult to understand for international viewers, or anyone unfamiliar with the specific kind of working class character he’s portraying.
Hayley Atwell, best known for roles in Captain America and The Duchess, is as incandescent and teasing as ever, but despite ostensibly playing the tough girl, her character, Nancy, is mainly reactive and doesn’t get enough screentime. The grim sight of her getting a seeing-to from Ray Winstone in a public loo may also sear itself into your brain for an unpleasantly long time. The same can be said for Damian Lewis, an actor I’ve often found insufferable but who makes a decent fist of Regan’s supervising officer, Frank Haskins, despite being mostly limited to hushed expressions of concern or disappointment over the methods employed by the Sweeney (rhyming slang from Sweeney Todd for the team’s official title of Flying Squad).
The action is staged with great proficiency, particularly a mid-movie gunfight across Trafalgar Square. Unlike many Hollywood directors, Love holds his camera steady and allows his action to generate excitement, rather than relying on distracting directorial gimmicks. While budget restrictions prevent anything too explosive from going down – the scene mainly involves Regan and his squad moving between cover and returning fire – the iconic location is something of a coup for the movie and fun to see getting shot to pieces. A subsequent scene where Regan and Nancy pursue villains through public offices and a car park shows a similar knack for making the most of limited means, while the climactic car chase through a caravan park is well shot and shows the dry sense of humour which made the television programme such fun.
It’s a shame that flavour is so lacking elsewhere, making the movie feel like a generic televised cop drama in its more languorous moments. Its messy plot and seedy violence can get wearying over its near-two hour running time, even if strong work from the actors and occasional flashes of inspiration (Winston gets a moment mirroring his breakout role in Scum, while Love’s cross-cutting between a bank robbery and children running a short-distance race is neat) give it a longer life than deserved. Despite his distasteful moral position, Love has a good eye for an action sequence, but is let down by other movies’ ability to afford bigger and better at the same ticket price. It’s a relief Sweeney isn’t as criminal as feared, and Love and his crew deserve credit for pushing a tiny budget beyond expectations, but you’d be hard pressed to call it arresting.