Cop thrillers are a dime a dozen these days, with most relegated to the direct-to-DVD realm while only a select few are actually deemed good enough for theatrical distribution. With both TV shows and motion pictures exploring the same type of cops-and-criminals content, the genre has no more novelty to it. Which is perhaps the biggest issue facing 2012’s The Sweeney, director Nick Love’s modern-day adaptation of the cop show of the same name from the 1970s. However, it’s not all bad. Having never seen the original show, I cannot comment on the quality of the adaptation, but Love’s movie actually works as its own standalone entity. In keeping with Outlaw and The Football Factory, The Sweeney exhibits Love’s penchant for big-screen machismo, with violence, action, macho posturing and profanity aplenty. As long as you’re not expecting an Oscar-worthy masterpiece which breathes fresh life into its genre, there’s a lot to enjoy in this stylishly produced action-thriller.
Jack Regan (Ray Winstone) is a hard-edged London detective, a member of the unorthodox police unit known as the Flying Squad. While under scrutiny from Internal Affairs, Regan and his squad begin investigating the robbery of a jewellery store which resulted in the death of an innocent civilian. Regan and partner George Carter (Ben Drew, a.k.a. Plan B) suspect career criminal Francis Allen (Paul Anderson) is involved, but the rabbit hole goes deeper than they anticipated. Complicating matters is Jack’s secretive relationship with fellow officer Nancy Lewis (Hayley Atwell), and the fact that the Squad may be shut down due to their controversial methods and their unwillingness to follow orders.
For the record, “Sweeney Todd” is cockney rhyming slang for “Flying Squad,” therein justifying the title.
It’s apparent Love was aiming for something akin to Michael Mann’s Heat, even emulating a failed bank robbery which leads to a massive shootout spanning multiple public locations. But whereas Heat was mature entertainment which spent a large chunk of its three-hour running time exploring its protagonist’s personal life, The Sweeney is more concerned with police investigation and action. Plus, Love’s film is not as airtight from a scripting perspective, with the writing containing its fair share of dumb character moments and manufactured “movie” moments. Added to this, there’s not a great deal of nuance or subtlety to the screenplay, which was written by Love and co-writer John Hodge (Trainspotting). Still, The Sweeney does succeed as a piece of action-thriller entertainment thanks to brisk pacing and engaging storytelling, even if everything is wrapped up way too tidily.
The Sweeney was reportedly produced on a scant £2 million budget, which translates to less than $4 million American. Frankly, it looks like Love was working with a far more generous sum, as the film carries a polished, expensive look which is easily as impressive as any $50 million actioner. Most notable are the fluid, hard-hitting shootouts, including an intense fire-fight through Trafalgar Square and a nail-biting cat-and-mouse in an underground car park. Though Simon Dennis’ cinematography is at times on the shaky side, it’s tolerable for the most part, and the slick photography is complemented by crisp sound editing and Lorne Balfe’s thunderous Hans Zimmer-inspired score. Interestingly, the Top Gear crew apparently filmed some of the car chases. Now that’s being efficient and creative with one’s budget.
Those outside of England may have trouble understanding the actors here, as the accents are thick and the characters spout an endless array of peculiar Pommy slang. At the centre of the film, Winstone is a terrific protagonist, with just enough charm to let us like him in spite of his character’s downfalls and immoral tendencies. Drew, meanwhile, is strictly okay as Winstone’s partner in crime. He has the right physicality to be a police officer, but he’s not always credible as a gun-toting tough guy. Hayley Atwell (Captain America: The First Avenger) also appears here, and she’s predictably lovely as Nancy. Also of note is Paul Anderson (what an unfortunate name…), who’s effective as one of the villains here.
As perhaps to be expected since the film is based on a television show, Love visibly has franchise potential in mind, as the ending leaves room wide open for further adventures of these characters. It’s an appetising enough offer, but it’s doubtful that the underwhelming box office performance will have investors clambering for more. In final analysis, The Sweeney is an entertaining, hard-boiled thriller; the action is arresting and the film was assembled with panache, but it’s nevertheless not narratively complex or intricate enough to rise to the same level as The Departed or Heat.