“We’re the Sweeney, motherfucker,” announces hardened detective Jack Regan (Ray Winstone) to a helpless goon in the opening moments of “The Sweeney,” director Nick Love’s slickly hollow feature-length take on the ’70s ITV series. Jack’s confidence overpowers both the villains and the movie itself, which in spite of its competent direction and grave tone mainly functions as an overly typical run-and-gun action vehicle. Winstone manages to invade the trite proceedings with plenty of feisty energy to spare, but even this badass can’t defeat a screenplay’s worth of clichés.
Nevertheless, Love (whose previous credits include “The Firm” and “Outlaw”) delivers an eminently watchable procedural, if only because the material never swells in ambition and hugs the rules that dictate its narrative. From the start, it’s clear that the brash tactics enacted by Jack and his underlings at the London Flying Squad — casually dubbed “Sweeney Todd” and shortened to “the Sweeney” — will dominate an icy tale of crime and punishment. Naturally, given the genre, this means that the no-nonsense leading man must confront challenges from both the obvious bad guys and the bureaucrats unable to cope with his tactics; in this case, the dissenting voice comes from Jack’s whiny boss, Guv (Damian Lewis), whose smarmy wife Nancy (Hayley Atwell) is a member of Jack’s force and also his not-so-secret lover on the side. Jack always finds a way to one-up his foes, with dirty tactics that extend to the bedroom.
After celebrating a successful crime bust early on, Jack and Nancy retreat from a celebratory after party with the team for grungy bathroom sex. Watching the bearish Winstone romance a woman half his age and a quarter his girth may push the movie’s credibility, but that’s less of an issue than the way Love and John Hodges, in the gruff, largely humorless script, fail to elevate the plot to the same outlandish heights. From the start, “The Sweeney” remains firmly grounded by its old-school television roots, with the core of the drama revolving around a drab scheme by local gangsters to set up the Sweeney for the fall. Eventually, Jack faces repercussions for his forceful investigatory tactics and chooses to go rogue, ticking off his boss and eventually winding up behind bars. That leaves his younger but equally aggressive partner George (Ben Drew) to step up to the plate.
George’s potential heroism marks an interesting shift of focus, but “The Sweeney” presents it as one of many rushed ideas that never reach their full potential. Fleeting scenes hint at the amusingly carefree belligerence that Jack and his colleagues bring to their profession: an interrogation session that finds one Sweeney member dangling a perp off a rooftop by his shoe while the other takes a casual phone call, say, or Jack’s cunning ability to survive gang violence during his bout in prison. But each time “The Sweeney” starts to generate serious excitement, it backs down.
Love lands a few smoothly directed action sequences that mainly work because of the application of speed. A POV car chase through a winding road lined with bushes provides one such standout moment, as do the occasional bloody fist fights, demonstrating that the filmmaker has an eye for down-and-dirty choreography. The appearance of that skill makes it all the more troublesome that “The Sweeney” retreats to a routine finale of empty-headed shootouts and a shrug-like epilogue. Despite its roots in a running series, the movie seems trapped in a vacuum by a lack of conceptual inspiration.
With its allegiance to formula always in check, “The Sweeney” establishes a strong enough character type to place it in league with other studies of morally ambiguous police work, including both versions of “Bad Lieutenant” and “Rampart.” (An “Avengers”-style team-up of the anti-heroes of those three movies and this one might truly realize the genre’s potential, if not make a ton of money; fan-film directors take note.) The best of these movies render the childhood cops-and-robbers fantasy in shades of grey by deconstructing the myths associated with the presumption of objective authority. Jack certainly does things the way he wants them done, but “The Sweeney” doggedly adheres to a familiar tune that could use some roughing up.
Criticwire grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? While it played to a solid reception as the opening-night film of Locarno’s Piazza Grande section, “The Sweeney” is unlikely to gain much traction in theatrical release, given that mixed reviews are unlikely to help word of mouth and the low level of familiarity with the original program limits the draw of its existing brand. In the U.S., eOne, which picked up “The Sweeney” at Cannes, will release the film theatrically.