Welcome to the Punch
I’ve been watching a lot of British crime shows recently; their patient, potent and properly paced approach to storytelling is a nice palette cleanser after all those hours of American output. Welcome to the Punch is technically a British crime but it bears no resemblance whatsoever to those types of shows. The buzzphrase passed around in most reviews is that this is London-crime done American style, that its the English remake of Heat you never thought you needed to see, but despite some strong similarities I would go further afield than that in search of the films seed; specifically I would search the pacific for the once colonial port city of Hong Kong and its specific sub-genre of Cop ‘n Robber crime thrillers. Whatever its origin Welcome to the Punch is at first a safe tasting tryst with the action genre that slowly sours as it fails to fuse and subvert its familiar flavors into something greater.
The opening shot of the film certainly reinforces the aforementioned connection to Heat. I don’t truly know what it depicts, presumably some sort of cyber-heist, but it is more Michael Mann than the man himself has delivered in years: all strobing neon-esque colour strikingly composed in motion against a matte black back. Though England has long been a land of warm, autumnal palettes an pale, bleeding greys contemporary London is a city that lends itself perfectly to this cold, glassy visual style that was once specific to Chicago or LA. Unfortunately though this particular visual tic makes my next metaphor all to easy:Welcome to the Punch is little more than a reflection of films we’ve seen before and so although it does do a decent job of aping what we adore in these productions there is something permanently off about it, something alien and asynchronous that keeps us apart from the action.
There is a moment three quarters of the way through the film – one of many purely expositional confrontations – in which the presumed criminal mastermind played by Mark Strong starts asking just who the hell all these people he’s been shooting are and just what they have to do with the plot. It’s a very reasonable question and one that I should have been asking myself but didn’t because I simply wasn’t invested enough in the story to think outside the present frame. Watching Welcome to the Punch is a lot like living as a Luddite; you’re kept constantly in the dark throughout but being as you are unaware of the existence of light this shady setting doesn’t altogether bother you. Things simply happen and as at least half of them are consistently cool you go along with it, not noticing in the moment that the trees surrounding you don’t quite sum to a forest.
The primary reason for this problem is also its strongest element: the story takes these crime-thriller tropes and twists them, follows them further than a film usually would which is quite interesting but it fails to ever elevate them out of tropic status. There is a criminal with a code and the honest cop who vowed to catch him and we come into the story years down the track with the two approaching a strange, new situation from opposite but not necessarily opposing sides and this could lead to some interesting tensions but instead its only the old ones that ever really surface, the interesting beats left to simmer under the surface. There is a mystery or two here too, though its only ever clear that they are meant to be mysteries once you are given the solutions since the focus is so firmly on these two men (and on the wrong one if you ask me, Mark Strong given very little to say but nailing every nourishing moment) and their stronger but safer narrative.
There are some good scenes to see though: some stunning scenery, some solid if standard shoot-outs and even stronger speak-outs (like the scene on Nana’s couch) but because the film is so empty and so failing in empathy these potentially potent moments lose much of their impact and interest: I thought that the big bad was just a goon for most of the movie, the shocking betrayal wasn’t a twist because the film offered so few reasons to trust the betrayer and there was one murder in particular should have been both shocking and haunting in equal parts but I didn’t even realize the victim was dead until much later, assuming that the film was following a cliche kidnapping tract. Ultimately then despite a decent pedigree Punch ends up sitting more in the league of Street Kings or Miami Vice than any of the classic modern crime films that it evokes, which is a shame since the elements of greatness are technically all there, inverted behind the glass.