Friday, 7 September 2012



The latest in a long line of television to movie adaptations is a quintessentially British affair that desperately wants to compete with its American counterparts. It’s glossy and polished in a way that the original series never was and it can’t wait to let you know there’s more to British policing than Bobbies on the beat. While Hot Fuzz has already played with the concept of transposing this iconically American genre to the UK, this certainly isn’t playing for laughs.
It’s played reassuringly, and refreshingly, straight with no room for nudges and winks in this vision of London as a cops and robbers battleground. We’re introduced to the no-nonsense Flying Squad (‘Sweeney Todd’) of the title through a rough ‘n’ tumble conversation about the fitness of birds before we’re launched into watching them rumble a heist. Anyone familiar with director Nick Love’s oeuvre would be getting worried about now. The laddish banter and casual violence are present and correct.
While not quite on a par with the squalidness of his previous efforts, it does set a worrying precedent. Happily, it turns out those preconceptions are mostly ill-founded and Love proves himself to be adept at handling most elements of the film. He shares a writing credit with John Hodge (who adapted Trainspotting to blistering effect) so you would expect the script to shine through. However, it features more “slags” than your average knocking shop and rarely rises beyond parody, which is a problem when the film takes itself so seriously.
The plot is a bit of a slog and anyone who’s ever seen an episode of a primetime cop drama will be miles ahead of this supposedly crack squad when it comes to piecing together the evidence. It makes them look lumbering and merely reinforces the notion that they’re all about brawn and less about brain, which makes it doubly baffling when they seem to be based in the kind of hi-tech, inner city foothold that would make S.H.I.E.L.D. blush.
In many ways it’s akin to a British take on Elite Squad (minus any of that film’s nuance). Aside from the obvious police squad similarities, it’s similar in its politics in that it suggests it takes a bit of fascistic head-knocking to really uphold the law. It’s a glowing exaltation of police brutality, without any attempt to analyse or criticise. Even early themes of police corruption are quietly swept aside and forgotten about. The film is completely in thrall to their machismo; unfalteringly in awe of the methods they employ.
The problem with this is that there’s no outsider character to lead you in and let you experience any of these methods through their eyes. As a viewer, you're very much positioned as one of The Sweeney and, indeed, the only real example of someone outside the circle is painted as an effete, sexless prick from the off.
Ray Winstone plays Jack Regan as Ray Winstone and Ben ‘Plan B’ Drew as George Carter shows that he’s really not much of an actor when not required to look a bit tasty with his fists. Proper nawty geezers and armed bastards make up the bulk of the other characters, with the exceptions of Damian Lewis and Steven Mackintosh as pencil pushers. Hayley Atwell is pleasingly given a role that lets her be just as hard as the men but, unfortunately, that’s balanced out by also making her inexplicably fall into bed (or, rather, a toilet cubicle) with Winstone at every opportunity.
All these problems are well and good but moot points if you can focus on the content of the action instead. Aside from the minor thrill of seeing exciting things happen in iconic locations, the action is a bit of a mess though. A strangely bloodless shootout in Trafalgar Square is shoddily edited and lacking in tension but at least the car chases and punch ups, which made the John Thaw and Dennis Waterman version so iconic, fare better. A high speed chase through a caravan park is exhilarating and the few scenes of mano-a-mano scrapping are crunchingly effective.
"You're nicked" seems an appropriate phrase to echo through the film as it applies to a score that’s often eerily similar to that of The Dark Knight. Meanwhile, the second unit must have struck a deal with Alan Sugar to lease b-roll from The Apprentice as it’s hard not to look at the glossy aerial shots of London without hearing ‘Montagues and Capulets’ playing in your head while Lord Sugar informs you he’s “not looking for arse-kissers”.
And that is a fairly apt description of The Sweeney’s ambitions. It’s not looking for anyone to shower it with plaudits. It just wants to please a post-pub Friday night crowd and show that British film doesn’t have to be genteel. In that respect, it’s a relative success. Job done.

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