“We’re The Sweeney, and you’ve just been nicked,” barks Ray Winstone (plus or minus a few expletives) about three separate times during U.K. actioner “The Sweeney,” and it’s the biggest tip-off that this is based on an established property. “The Sweeney” never made it stateside, though the television series ran for four seasons in the ’70s; a cop show that broke new ground in depicting the British boys in blue as both fallible and heroically corrupt and on the take as they smashed heads to keep citizens safe from violent crime.
Without familiarity of the program, we can’t speak as to the fidelity shown by this latest screen adaptation from director Nick Love. Though if the spirit of the show was preserved, it can be said that “The Sweeney” likely hasn’t aged well, and the film version seems to have arrived well past its sell-by date. “The Sweeney” is so knee-deep in its spirit of generic cop procedurals, shady advocacy of police brutality and hard-boiled B.S. dialogue that you’ll spend the first half hour wondering if this is some poker-faced parody. How else to explain the presence of Winstone, a fantastic actor a good decade too old for this role as gruff top cop Jack Regan? Huffing and puffing through foot chases, Winstone displays substantial strength despite looking as if he’s never spent a single day at the gym that couldn’t be improved by a rewarding ice cream sundae chaser.
Winstone’s distinct brogue sets the tone for this crime busters epic, which involves a case gone upside down, with the wrong skulls smashed in front of an internal affairs officer who might as well waddle through scenes with an actual prosthetic tail between his knees. And by set the tone, we mean keep your ears peeled – for some of us uncultured westerners, the cockney slang in this fast-talking, detail-heavy story is at times borderline impenetrable. The Sweeney, a special task force who don’t do any police work unless there’s an armed robbery happening in the vicinity, are actually officially called the Flying Squad, which rhymes with “Sweeney Todd,” which explains their title. Yes, I had to look that up, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it was crammed somewhere into the dialogue.
Most of “The Sweeney” is built around the central relationships surrounding Regan. His disciple is George Carter, a young kid from the streets who’s made good on the other side of the badge. Giving this character a bit of unpolished charisma is the rapper Plan B, here going by Ben Drew. While he also looks like he’s never laid weights onto his tiny frame, his lack of polish and boyish handsomeness makes a nice counterpoint to Winstone’s unstoppable slab of meat.
Regan also has a love affair brewing with fellow agent Nancy Lewis (Hayley Atwell). Suppose it should count as progressive that a man like Winstone, who looks as if he should constantly smell of pastrami, is matched with the otherworldly beauty of Atwell. But given the film’s skimpy characterizations and obvious plot points, it becomes an ordeal to watch the bearish Winstone pawing at Atwell as she unconvincingly purrs sweet nothings into his ear. For those considerably long moments of lovemaking, “The Sweeney” earns a recommendation for resembling a wildlife documentary. Did we mention everyone knows she’s married to the actual officer investigating the illegal activities of The Sweeney?
Lending an implausible amount of gravity to the situation is Emmy winner Damian Lewis as Sweeney boss Frank Haskins. Lewis, good sport that he is, has to play a character that remains oblivious to the very obvious negligence of The Sweeney right under his nose, attempting to add a layer of humanity to the familiar role of exasperated chief. Lewis, like the rest of the cast in this genre exercise, maintains a semblance of dignity, though it’s safe to say you probably saw his, “YOU’RE OFF THE FORCE!” moment coming a mile away. All criticisms aside, it’s impossible to hate a good YOTF moment, though it just cements this film as the sort of project that would star a British version of McBain.
Likely due to its roots, “The Sweeney” feels episodic, with the crew heroically descending upon some baddies before learning they broke the rules for the wrong suspects. Such is the tension that sets in as pressure mounts from above and below, as the search for the real perps collides with the deeper investigation into the crew’s actions. This rings false because, even if you don’t know the origins of “The Sweeney,” you know judging by the thumping theme music, the shiny title logo, and the ineffectual impotence of the suits and their investigation (literally, in the case of the cuckolding of Nancy’s husband) that this is a foregone conclusion. Up until the very very end (which uncorks a CLASSIC cop cliché that seemed long dead by now), “The Sweeney” is straight dumb procedural, no chaser. [D]