Reagan (Ray Winstone) and Carter (Ben Drew) are the two leading lights of London’s Flying Squad, also handily known as The Sweeney. When a previous adversary of Reagan’s, psychopathic killer bank robber Allen (Paul Anderson) makes a reappearance, Reagan becomes obsessed with catching him, raising the suspicions of boss Ivan Lewis (Steven Mackintosh) and causing Carter to grow increasingly worried about the lengths Reagan will go to get his man.
Nick Love is, to put it charitably, a divisive figure in the world of British filmmaking. With critical acclaim for his first feature, 2001′s Goodbye Charlie Bright, he then made a massive splash with 2004′s The Football Factory which built on the likes of The Firm (which Love himself later remade) and I.D. to tell a tale of football hooligans who, through camaraderie and macho pride, kick the crap out of people and have fun doing it. Unlike those earlier films I mentioned, this film didn’t have the awareness to actually point out what kind of loss of pure humanity such activities can do, instead celebrating it and ending with a conclusion which, for me, was morally repugnant. His following films have been designed for the same kind of audience, though none had quite the impact of TFF, and he is now back after a 3-year absence with his highest profile effort to date, a long gestating reboot of the popular 70′s TV show of the same name.
The Sweeney is Nick Love’s best film but there is a fair amount of damning with faint praise inherent within that statement. What I will unabashedly say however is that the opening half hour of this film contains effective filmmaking and a sense of knockabout fun which had this viewer sit up and take notice. An opening raid on a warehouse introduces our two protagonists well, Reagan being the burly and sweary one who is unafraid to bash heads together and call people “SSLLAAGGGGSSS” and Ben Drew putting in a somewhat more self-consciously cool approach, taking the mickey out of his colleague’s love lives and nonchalantly driving through a warehouse door while doing so. This setup, which contains impressive direction from Love, is fairly eye-opening and if the following scenes of celebration feel a little ordinary, the introduction of Hayley Atwell’s Sweeney member, and her relationship with Reagan certainly is not. Atwell manages to pull off the nigh-on impossible task of looking like she really wants to go on Ray Winstone’s Wild Ride. It’s a shame her character doesn’t do much more than that but what Atwell is asked to do she manages with aplomb.
There are other moments to impress scattered through the film though, Winstone crafting Reagan as a man out of his time but one who is still very impressive at what he does. Though he never stretches himself, you won’t want him to. There is also an action sequence in the second act which is staged impressively with very real locations around London being used (though the lack of extras is distracting) and the way the score bubbles under the mix was something that stuck with me also, a stylistic touch I got on board with.
It’s a shame then that the film manages to be something that you really won’t want it to be, one that takes itself seriously. While the antics I described earlier are fun to watch, as the film goes on, it becomes ever clearer that here we have a tale of men doing stuff for themselves to achieve results, damn the establishment, damn those who naysay around them, they will do it anyway. This is the Nick Love ethos, based on his other work it would seem, but here it doesn’t fit, especially when those around Reagan are usually correct. A major 2nd act turn simply would not have happened if Reagan had just sat down and listened. What the film is saying is obvious but its actual message becomes confused through its telling. And hey, if you are reading this saying “it’s The Sweeney, lighten up”, I’d say yes, I agree and I wish someone told Nick Love that.
The rest of the cast are a mixed bag. I have liked Ben Drew in the past but here his understatement becomes something too close to just not even trying. Our own David Hall remarked to me that half of his performance is opening doors and looking stoned and that’s something which really strikes at the heart of the problem here. Paul Anderson is creepily sleazy as Allen, the bad guy of the piece, and Damien Lewis and Steven Mackintosh fill in the ‘superiors who kind of/don’t approve’ roles perfectly well.
The Sweeney is a mixed bag, almost worth seeing for Ray Winstone alone, and while there are other elements to enjoy, it’s a film which doesn’t quite manage to pull off what it wants to do, needing to be either wholly more serious (and likely with a different cast if that was the case) or a lighter, more straight-up fun affair. Still, not as bad as it could have been.