The Sweeney: Film Review

Cops and robbers remake set in contemporary East London.

Nick Love's film, a reboot of the 1970s British police show, co-stars Ray Winstone and "Homeland" actor Damian Lewis.

Rebooting a much-loved British TV drama from the 1970s, this flashy biggest project yet from the writer-director Nick Love, a kind of low-rent Guy Ritchie who has earned a respectable domestic following with simplistic love letters to macho villainy such as The Football Factory and The Business. A play on Sweeney Todd, the title derives from the cockney rhyming-slang nickname for the Flying Squad, a branch of London’s Metropolitan Police first set up in the 1920s to tackle armed robbery and violent crime.

With Ray Winstone and Homeland star Damian Lewis in the cast, and a kinetic visual style that imbues contemporary London with all the glossy swagger of a Michael Mann production, The Sweeney feels muscular and dynamic enough to reel in a worldwide action-movie audience. But fans of the original TV series, or simply of quaint notions like subtlety and wit, are unlikely to be seduced by Love’s infantile cops-and-robbers fantasy.

Heading for its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland this week, Love’s film is not the first big-screen outing for The Sweeney. Spawning two cinematic spin-offs in the late 1970s, the original series became a hugely successful milestone in British television. Running between 1975 and 1978, it was the first show to portray policemen as rule-bending anti-heroes with a taste for casual brutality, booze and bed-hopping.

The TV show starred John Thaw, who later found global fame as a more refined but equally irascible detective in Inspector Morse. The dinosaur sexism and politically incorrect attitudes of Thaw’s character, senior Flying Squad detective Jack Regan, has since been much copied and parodied, most recently inspiring the hard-bitten cop Gene Hunt in the BBC police drama Life on Mars and its short-lived US remake.

Winstone steps into Thaw’s hobnailed boots as Regan, glowering and growling his way through some excruciatingly bad lines. Playing his streetwise young deputy Carter is Ben Drew, aka rapper Plan B, who wrote and directed his own superior London crime drama Ill Manors earlier this year. Drew is a fine musician and promising film-maker, but he looks stiff and muted here, possibly in response to a painfully corny script. At least Lewis brings a dash of delicacy to his supporting role as the Squad’s long-suffering boss, torn between protecting his loose-cannon lawmen and the bean-counting City Hall bureaucrats who want to shut them down.

Revolving around a bank heist, a murder in a jewellery shop and a renegade gang of Balkan hit men, Love’s contemporary remake borrows little from its TV blueprint besides title, names and basic set-up. The characters are crudely drawn and the plot fairly generic, but the film scores best on a purely visual level. The action scenes have a visceral punch and swagger, especially a fast-moving gun battle around the tourist landmarks of Trafalgar Square, and a climactic car chase through a coastal trailer park.

While the original TV series was mostly shot in scruffy drinking dens and crumbling warehouses in west London, Love relocates the Squad’s operations to a high-tech skyscraper in London’s newly regenerated East End. Their office resembles a super-slick advertising agency, while their pristine white interrogation rooms could be art gallery in a Kubrick movie. All glass and steel and new money, this emerging 21st century citadel has never been so well captured on screen before. Love makes its gleaming architecture a key motif in his film, shooting it from above in stylishly washed-out greys and blues.

But however appealing these visual touches may be, they are simply not enough to distract us from the film’s clumsy characterisation, comically bad dialogue and groaningly clichéd plot. While Thaw’s small-screen Regan was a prickly but sharp-witted charmer, Winstone’s pot-bellied, pugnacious big-screen version comes across as a brutish bully and borderline psychopath. When not punching through walls or head-butting suspected criminals, he is sleeping with the wife of an uptight pen-pushing colleague who is investigating the Squad for alleged corruption.

In the real Metropolitan Police of 2012, Regan’s leering chauvinism and childish antagonism to his superior officers would get him sacked within a week. Alas, all the evidence suggests that Love expects us to admire him as a bad-ass maverick. The female Squad members, all mysteriously younger and better looking than their male colleagues, naturally find Regan and his boorish crew irresistible. Real men, the script suggests, earn respect with their fists.

In this respect, The Sweeney owes more to Love’s previous films than to its vintage TV blueprint. Given the director’s track record of reactionary dramas that celebrate lowlife thuggery and vigilante justice, this is a serious flaw. Perhaps Love’s testosterone-fuelled exercise in visual razzle-dazzle will help sell him to Hollywood as a maker of shallow but eye-catching crime thrillers in the Tony Scott mould. But on its own merits, The Sweeney is as charmless as an angry drunk at a wedding, and as subtle as a shotgun blast to the face.

Venue: London Press Screening
Production companies: Vertigo Films, Embargo Films
Cast: Ray Winstone, Ben Drew, Damian Lewis, Hayley Atwell, Steven Mackintosh
Director: Nick Love
Producer: Allan Niblo, Rupert Preston, James Richardson, Christopher Simon, Felix Vossen
Cinematography: Simon Dennis
Writer: Nick Love
Editor: James Herbert
Music: Lorne Balfe
Sales agent: Protagonist Pictures
Rating TBC, 108 minutes.