Take away the British actors, accents and settings and “Welcome to the Punch” would still be a perfectly serviceable if utterly generic cop thriller.
A tale of corruption, gun play and murder, it takes a few unpredictable turns before reaching at a conclusion we can see coming miles before its arrival.
James McAvoy is Max, a headstrong cop chasing after a master criminal who has just pulled off a slick robbery in the film’s opening moments. Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong) may get away, but not before Max has risked life and limb to stop him.
“You’re obsessed,” his dispatcher shouts on the radio. “You’re not thinking straight.”
That’s how Max gets shot. Three years later, he’s still draining fluid out of his bad knee, still testy at any suggestion by his partner, Sarah (Andrea Riseborough) that his short fuse and fanaticism is going to end badly.
The cops catch a break when the crook’s crooked son (Elyes Gabel) is shot and makes a weepy call to Dad in his Icelandic hideout. The hoodlum will move heaven and Earth, and shoot anybody who gets in his way, to get to his son.
Max, we learn, is obsessed with “being a nobody,” while a robbing/ shooting/ kidnapping thug like Sternwood is “a legend.” His department chief (David Morrissey) is running for higher office on a platform that cops need guns as exotic as the criminal classes. A wave of shootings sweeping the nation seems to back him up. This case, this Sternwood, would be a coup to catch just before election day.
“Welcome to the Punch” can be appreciated for some new twists on an old formula. The crooks want to get word on “the street” to set a trap, and consult with a barber who moonlights as an underworld social media “viral” info expert. As Max follows the clues and confers with Sarah, Sternwood relies on an old comrade (the great, grizzled Peter Mullan) and follows those same clues.
Yes, they’re both trying to figure out who shot Sternwood’s kid, and what that connects to.
The action beats are by-the-book, the shootouts are straight out of a Bruce Willis movie — high caliber AK-47s and other machine guns mow down bit players, but only wound those with speaking parts.
McAvoy is overwrought much of the time, bellowing in pain at the bad knee, a real contrast to his less convincing turn as a tortured art dealer in the upcoming “Trance.” Strong is stone-cold stoic, Morrissey spitting with vehemence and Riseborough steady in a role that requires her to do nothing but look like she’s thinking this thing through as she writes notes on her hand.
Like the recently-imported “The Sweeney,” the novelty here is in the Britishness of it all. That’s not really enough to make this one stand out.
And the diminutive McAvoy, trying his hand at all manner of action, may be hoping to become the Scottish Tom Cruise. But “Welcome to the Punch” shows he’s still more of a Scottish Michael J. Fox, an actor better served by roles with more charm and less grimacing than this one.
WELCOME TO THE PUNCH
2 stars (Grade: C)
Cast: James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Andrea Riseborough, David Morrissey
Written and directed by Eran Creevy. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:38
MPAA rating: Unrated, with lots of gun violence and blood and guts