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Hullabaloo


Sunday, March 03, 2013

 
Saturday Night at the Movies (on Sunday)


London’s burning


By Dennis Hartley



Dial 999: Winstone and squad in The Sweeney
















If there’s anything I’ve learned from watching hundreds of crime thrillers over the years, it’s this: if you’re a bad guy, be wary of any police team that is known on the street as the “(insert nickname here) Squad”.  Consider “The Hat Squad” in Mulholland Falls, Lee Tamahori’s 1996 neo-noir concerning the exploits of a merry crew of thuggish cops (led by growly fireplug Nick Nolte) barely distinguishable in thought or action from the criminals they chase. The latest example is writer-director Nick Love’s new film, The Sweeney, which centers on “The Flying Squad”, a modern-day team of London coppers who share similarities with their fedora-wearing American counterparts. For one, they’re led by a growly fireplug (Brit-noir veteran Ray Winstone). He’s DI Jack Regan, a “cop on the edge” who swears by the adage: “To catch a criminal-you have to think like one”. And you also apparently have to act like one; Regan and his clannish unit bend the rules (and violate 57 civil liberties) on a daily basis. But they always get their man, sealing every takedown with the catchphrase “We’re the Sweeney…and you’ve been nicked!”


Naturally, Regan’s questionable methods have put him at loggerheads with his supervisor (Damian Lewis), and especially with head of internal affairs DCI Lewis (Steven Mackintosh). Lewis and Regan have a history of mutual animosity, which would likely turn into open warfare should Lewis ever discover that Regan has been playing bangers and mashers with his (nearly) estranged wife (Hayley Atwell) who is an officer in Regan’s squad. However, office politics soon takes a back seat to Regan’s  obsession with nailing his criminal nemesis (Paul Anderson), who Regan suspects as the mastermind behind a series of bold, military-style robberies (one ends with the execution of a jewelry store customer). The squad intercepts the heavily-armed robbers in the middle of a bank score, but after a pitched gun battle on the busy London streets, they elude capture (set in Trafalgar Square, it’s the most tense and excitingly mounted cops’n’robbers shootout since Michael Mann’s Heat). Regan’s superiors are not pleased with his disregard for public safety, so they ask for his badge and gun. Regan sees this (and a brief jail stint engineered by DCI Lewis) as a minor setback; with the clandestine help of his protégé (Ben Drew) he is soon back on the case (“unofficially”…of course).

Love’s film is based on a British TV series of the same name, which ran from 1975-1979. As a self-proclaimed Anglophile and huge fan of British TV police procedurals, from Prime Suspect and Cracker to New Tricks, Life On Mars and DCI Banks (the latter recently making its U.S. premiere on PBS) I’m embarrassed to admit that this particular series somehow slipped under my radar. Regardless, one needn’t be familiar with the TV version to enjoy this film, which I did immensely. The screenplay was co-written by John Hodge (Trainspotting ), and is chock-a-block with his trademark crackling dialogue and amusing insult humor (although I found myself wonting for subtitles at times). Performances are excellent throughout; Winstone can do no wrong in my book, and I was particularly impressed with Drew’s convincing performance as a reformed petty street criminal turned policeman (he’s better known to many as the British rap artist “Plan B”).

Interestingly, while it has a number of similarities to the Michael Mann film I mentioned earlier, there is one classic noir that Love’s film particularly evokes, and that is William Friedkin’s 1971 thriller, The French Connection. Winstone’s character struck me as a bit of a kindred spirit to Gene Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle. Both bachelors, they are somewhat slovenly and bereft of basic social skills, but on the job, they are a force to be reckoned with; driven, focused and relentless in their desire to catch the bad guys. And like Doyle’s obsession with “the Frenchman” in Friedkin’s film, Regan’s pursuit of his quarry becomes his raison d’etre; all else falls by the wayside. Perhaps most significantly, both of these cops see themselves as working-class heroes of a sort. The criminals they seek to take down are living high off their ill-begotten gains; they are cleverly elusive, yet so confident in their abilities to cover their tracks that they seem to take a perverse pleasure in openly taunting their pursuers. This is noir as class warfare. Or, this could just be a well made cops and robbers flick with some cool chase scenes…






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