Film festivals are a haven for cinephiles — just not on opening night.
On opening night, the quality of the elbow-rubbing photo ops takes precedence over the quality of the movie that everyone is ostensibly there to see. And that’s totally fine. It would be ridiculous to expect Cannes to open with “Holy Motors” when they were in a position to highlight the more audience-friendly, star-studded “Moonrise Kingdom.” The tedious RSVP system, the rows and rows of reserved seats for people connected to the production, and the endless series of introductions are ultimately worth it if the film is enjoyable (like “To Rome With Love” at this year’s L.A. Film Festival). In a way, this isn’t that different from Fox churning out one “X-Men” sequel after another while also distributing “The Tree of Life” via Fox Searchlight — the success of the tent-pole helps finance the riskier ventures. If Leonardo DiCaprio showing up on the red carpet for “J. Edgar” in any way helped the good folks at AFI Fest program “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” and “The Turin Horse,” I’m all for it.
This is one of the things that makes the Locarno Film Festival a welcome outlier: its most high-profile screenings are also the easiest to get into. The festival’s premiere venue, the Piazza Grande, is an outdoor space open to the public and capable of seating some 8,000 viewers. There are relatively few reserved seats and, more importantly, even fewer bad ones — the only way you’ll have trouble seeing the gargantuan screen is if the person in front of you is exceedingly tall or in possession of a large cranium. All of which is a long lead-up to my saying that, though I’d never seen a single episode of the ’70s TV series on which it’s based, and didn’t even expect it to be good, there was little question as to whether I would head to the Piazza for the world premiere of Nick Love’s “The Sweeney.” The film itself is nothing to write home about — at best, a decently made but never distinguished crime thriller, it’s actively bad for the first hour — but the marked improvement it undergoes in its second half is something of a feat all on its own. The transition only elevates it from almost puzzlingly generic to passable, but small victories are victories nonetheless.
“The Sweeney” isn’t an especially recognizable property outside the UK, but its premise is all too familiar: a rough-and-tumble police team (Ray Winstone and Ben Drew) does what it takes to get the job done and inevitably gets hectored and/or threatened with firing by their straight-laced boss, played by Damian Lewis (that he’s frequently in the right is, of course, overshadowed by the fact that he’s also kind of a dick). Pearls of wisdom like “Sometimes you gotta act like a criminal to catch one” are thrown around early on and, when things get especially tough, replaced with “You’re a dinosaur. You’re extinct.” The latter is a fairly good summation of what the film ends up being, actually: far from nuanced or original but also fairly satisfying in the moment. There’s never a point at which “The Sweeney” does anything unexpected and, with the exception of the superb chase sequence that signals the beginning of its improvement, it isn’t even that great at doing what it does. In another setting, one might be less forgiving. Still, there’s something about the grand-yet-low-key atmosphere of the Piazza — even on opening night — that’s conducive to just going with the flow.
A hardliner would argue that, at its purest, a film festival exists to showcase works that might never be exhibited otherwise — thus making big-budget openers of this sort contrary to their very nature. The argument that these are fan-centric events goes out the window when all but the first three rows of the Chinese Theater have big pieces of paper with “RESERVED” written on them. As with anything else though, film festival opening nights are all about balance and compromise. At the end of the day, an opener’s main goal should be to ease viewers into the festival in a way that’s both compelling on its own and in relation to the other, often headier films to follow. Based on audience reaction to its climax — and despite a very shaky first half — “The Sweeney” appears to have just barely pulled that off.
Michael Nordine is part of Indiewire’s Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. His work has also appeared in Filmmaker Magazine, LA Weekly, and the Village Voice. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.