PUNCH’S stylish noir crime thriller, with deep blacks, brilliant edits and skilled visuals fails to deliver the knock out punch with a meandering script of few high points. The DI (Digital Intermediate) is brilliantly color corrected, contrast is perfectly balanced and the timing is impeccable. Ridley Scott has the movie production pipeline greased to the nines but still scrimps on the writers fees by shellacking the screen with crushed diamonds.
Welcome To The Punch is a damn good title for a movie. Security hacking, gas masked marauders in designer suits synced like water ballet swimmers roar with motorcycles in unionson, down streets and alleyways. Hot on their scent is Officer Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) raging for Jacob Sterwood’s (Mark Strong) head to stew in a concrete prison cell. Jacob, his talented crew of thieves and Max play a game of fox and hound in the middle of the night on the damp city streets of East London.
Max out of his car, middle of the street, hunched over in silence, stretching his ears to hear the slightest sound to find his quarry as the crafty mice push their cycles over asphalt to an underground maze to escape.
Max relentlessly pursues, somehow finding the criminals in a string of tunnels. Slamming Jacob from his cycle’s perch with a pipe. But Max loses the advantage and Jacob quickly turns the tables on him. Leveling his weapon on Max, yet instead of killing him, Jacob shoots him mercifully in the knee.
It’s not a Hollywood real estate agent shooting sugar into his latte like most movies slather on cartoon flesh wounds without creating real damage. Ridley gleefully demands carnage, I can hear him now. “If you get shot, it’s going to bloody hurt for a long time, if you manage to survive.”
Three years later Max is still draining fluid from his brutalized knee and a long deep surgical scar tells the story of his rehabilitation. Max is nursing wounds physical, and emotional. He has reexamined his life and concluded that it just wasn’t worth it. Putting it all on the line only to be twisted up and lamed isn’t worth being called a fool.
His inferiors have risen over him in rank and Max takes the easy route to compliance over his past attitude of contesting right and wrong with superiors.
McAvoy is the British Tom Hanks but in this most recent outing, McAvoy seems to be stretching his reach, on the screen it looks like he’s trying far to hard to attain a note he wasn’t built to sing. Often he looks almost childlike next to Strong, despite compensating camera angles.
His partner and obvious past or present girlfriend Sarah, charmingly played by (Andrea Riseborough) stands up in his place and questions the intelligence behind commands and actions of those in charge while Max looks away sheepishly. She is his past shadow of valor before a bullet took his pride away and gave him a telling gimp.
Sadly Sarah isn’t long for the world of Punch and her relationship with Max really isn’t explored enough. Her humor and slight of hand sarcasm with a soft gaze is what McAvoy needed to lighten the load of angst that was causing a grimace of exertion on his face I can only liken to silly putty. There were times that I questioned the choices of lenses because McAvoy’s nose seemed to elongate in certain scenes beyond normal proportions.
Andrea brings poignant moments to Sarah’s death scene when confronted in a dark metallic shipyard container by an obvious killer. Her earnest pleading and tearful eyes do nothing to hold her assailant back, at this point perhaps her Police revolver or some other issued weapon would have been an obvious nice touch. I was completely confused by Sarah not having a gun when investigating in such dangerous territory. I was torn from the movie to speak out loud many times. “Use your gun!”
The only sensual moment of the film to balance out endless flying bullet shells is when Sarah is lain dead on Max’s bed and the killer removes her shoes to reveal her feet. it’s subtle but Sarah is exposed and fragile in contrast to all the hard edges of Punch. The movie misses her contribution yet her death if used well could have raised the quality of Punch if her affair with Max had been better built up and make tangible.
This British crime thriller mini epoch is another Ridley Scott executive produced, McAvoy partnership. Only McAvoy isn’t Scottish this trip around but English with much of the same facial ticks and twitches. And much like TRANCE, PUNCH seems to fall short despite it’s intense cast, once again the script fails to match the visuals. Ridley really must take the scripts more seriously before he begins production. I realize he’s on a tight schedule for his production company but wouldn’t quality beat quantity at the box office?
The turn of the screw that revolves PUNCH is the son of Jacob. In trouble from a botched criminal outing, tumbling over airport security, Jacob’s son is bleeding out. He desperately calls his father who is hiding in the frozen tundra of Iceland.
Jacob like a sleeper cell, awakens, triggering a chain reaction of events that threatens to reveal the undertow of a political, police conspiracy, between McAvoy’s boss and certain hopeful candidates for power.
Strong is sufficiently militant and smart, but his back story is too weak a structure to support his characters motives. We seldom see anything other than the stoic nature of Jacob to draw any conclusions from. Is this a pseudo Micheal Mann attempt at subtext and minimalism?
Why didn’t Jacob kill Max, why shoot him in the knee? What is his back ground? Why a criminal and who is his son’s mother? Where is she? Did she die of cancer and force Jacob to a criminal life to pay for her treatments after his military life or can everyone in London fire automatic weapons?
Even a glimmer of Jacob’s return into the spotlight jerks Max awake like a lamb from the lions jaws. The fever of revenge and retribution heats Max into a whirlwind of energy as he convinces his superiors and partner that Jacob is back. What ensues is once again the chase with few surprises along the way.
Other than the jarring shutter wreaking the theater when Max falls to the ground from his crippled knee, the course remains straight ahead which is almost refreshing compared to recent illogical turnarounds and false leads of current thrillers.
Even Max’s reaction to Sarah’s murder seemed nothing more than a sideline to a clue written compulsively on her hand in ink. Again her character’s quirks are revealing and motivating to the plot even in her death. When the dead character entertains more than the live ones, this is a sign there’s an issue with your script.
Along the way Max and Sarah pick up a sinister eerie possible culprit in the form of ex military criminal with an alibi of watching old westerns with his loving near senile mum. This lazy eyed ex-patriot (Johnny Harris) almost steals the show, in a living room showdown scene that almost lifts PUNCH up from the canvas.I can almost hear the rest of the cast thinking out loud, “Why is this guy getting all the best lines” as Harris rattles on about his masculine military convictions and why he is the better man of all of them. Followed by a slow mo syncopated shoot out, jack knifed into the surreal by a eerie soundtrack, wrapped in clown paintings and cheap furniture. The scene is almost worth the price of admission alone.
Punch is strung together by the sudden alliance between Jacob and Max. Without a word the two realize a greater foe, after Jacob saves Max’s life several times, they continue on an unsteady path to revealing the somewhat mundane plot line of betrayal and politics as usual.
Max finally pushes the real question to Jacob. “Why didn’t you kill me?” Jacob’s answer is as unsatisfying as life sometimes is. “What for?” It does finally lend more emotion to Jacob’s motives and his morality, it’s just so late in the movie.
Cut out a few guns emptying their chambers refill with a deeper love affair between Sarah and Max. Give Jacob a weird clinging back story to fill out his motivation. Spice the whole thing up with more black satire like mum’s English sitting room and you would have had a near classic.
Welcome To The Punch signage outside storage docks leads to hidden stolen weapons to fuel the hypocrisy of a political injustice. Proving that the system is every bit as wrong as the criminals it creates.
It’s a punchline we have all heard before, but still rings true, though with a falsetto range in this hopeful British crime thriller.