Mark Strong has been working in film and television since the late 1980s, early 1990s, but over the last four years he's become a far more recognizable face, a talented actor who's finally getting his due. This year, he even starred in an AMC cop drama, Low Winter Sun. I've become a big fan of Strong, and it's been more than cool to see him get some starring roles in film too, like 2013's Welcome to the Punch.
A young, motivated detective in London, Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) has been working a case for months, desperately trying to catch infamous bank robber and thief Jacob Sternwood (Strong). Following one successful robbery, Sternwood is even cornered by Lewinsky but shoots him in the leg and manages to escape, the police unable to find him. Three years pass, and a 20-something who turns out to be Sternwood's son is caught on a tarmac with a gunshot wound. How did he get there? Who did it to him? With one phone call, he calls his father, the police following the clues to his hideout in Iceland. Now, Sternwood's son is in intensive care, Lewinsky suggesting they make that fact known through the criminal underground. The bait has been laid out for Sternwood's return, Lewinsky waiting to strike. As things come together though, the rivals realize they may need to work together to take out a common enemy.
Ever hear of this one? Yeah, me neither. According to IMDB, 'Punch' was released in theaters in the U.S. on four screens over two weekends last spring. It grossed a whopping $6,787 over that two-week release. Not bad, huh? So yeah, that's why we've never heard of it. I only stumbled on it at Netflix, and I'm glad I did. From director/writer Eran Creevy, 'Punch' borrows from some previous crime thrillers (British and otherwise), sampling everything from Michael Mann to Guy Ritchie. It's only 99-minutes long, but covers a lot of ground in that short(ish) running time. Very stylish, much of the story taking place at night, filmed in the shadows, dark clubs, dank alleyways, with some cool characters (even if they're familiar, seen them in other movies), a twisting story and some ridiculously stylized, cool action scenes.
If there is a complaint, it's easy to peg. Creevy's script tries to accomplish a lot. Sampling from the crime thriller genre, there's a lot of familiar characters, lots of familiar situations and not enough time to deal with it all. We get police partner drama, Lewinsky working through some personal drama with his partner, Sarah Hawks (Andrea Riseborough, of Oblivion). We get police corruption, Lewinsky having to decide who among the force (David Morrissey, Daniel Mays, Jason Flemyng, Daniel Kaluuya) who is clean and who is corrupt. Oh, there's also conspiracies involving an upcoming election, a social issue about police in England working unarmed, and a huge international corporation who may or may not be involved with the election. To say it is slightly convoluted would be slightly underselling the story, but it does all come together in the end. Just bear with it at times and go with it.
Not so surprising is that the best part is the focus on the rivalry between McAvoy's Lewinsky and Strong's Sternwood. The young, driven cop and the experienced, grizzled criminal are archetypal characters in the crime thriller genre, and more than that, those two different characters being forced to work together is a whole sub-genre from 48 Hours to Midnight Run and many others. They're familiar characters, but McAvoy and Strong breathe some life into them, giving the twisting and turning story some sort of base to come back to. McAvoy's Lewinsky has spent years brewing over the showdown that Sternwood that didn't go his way. Strong's Sternwood has left his past behind, only to be thrust back into it when his son gets involved in a crime where the details are more than fuzzy. I liked both characters -- and that goes a long way -- and liked it more when they're forced to put their differences aside and work together to take out a common enemy. Familiar but good.
Now onto something that may come out of left field. I like action scenes. I know...blew me away too. There's got to be something appealing about an action scene -- shootout, car chase, fist fight -- to make it memorable. The biggest thing going here? Composer Harry Escott's score is ridiculously appropriate for the action, the characters and the story. It's big...real BIG and not subtle at all. Listen to the entire soundtrack HERE. It makes the action -- more than solid in itself -- an experience to watch. There's some quick, hyper editing I typically don't go for, some epically slow motion sequences, all things we've seen before, but it Just Works here. The word that kept coming up was 'visceral.' These action scenes make you feel the action, a shiver up your spine, a goosebump on your arm. It's that cool factor that's just hard to explain, but hits you in the right way.
Without rewriting the genre, 'Punch' is able to be its own film. I liked it a lot, partially because I love police dramas and crime thrillers, but also because it is a genuinely good movie. Definitely worth checking out.
Welcome to the Punch (2013): ***/****