Wednesday 12 September 2012

Not much cop: "The Sweeney"

Nick Love's big-screen update of the old TV cop show The Sweeney starts as it means to go on: with a frustrating hint of the original's marvellous singalonga theme tune (inevitably, there's a junky drum-and-bass version over the end credits) and two cars full of coppers rating women out of ten. Even the female officers join in, and nobody under discussion is getting more than a six. In Love's Sweeney, the women are encouraged to be as tough as the men, because they're part of "the force", and you need the force to be at least as tough, if not more so, than the nasty sorts they're dispatched to take down. This mob are facking hard-as, in every respect. "I got a hard-on," guffaws one of the troops, as he charges into battle, fully tooled-up. The punchline of the ruckus they're heading to sees Ray Winstone's Jack Regan, old-school yardstick of tough, punching through a wall to throttle his quarry: "We're the Sweeney, shithead: you're nicked." That's hard.

Hardness, of course, is exactly what we need in cities where there are such sociopaths as Jean-Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson careening around; let's face it, The Sweeney posits, hardness is what you want, innit, you slaaaaaag. When he's not out putting the choke on nonces and blaggers, big Jack is wooing a colleague (Hayley Atwell), who just so happens to be married to the posh bloke in internal affairs who's been trying to shut Regan's department down on the grounds of disproportional hardness. I say wooing; what this relationship involves in actuality is grappling sex in pub toilets, 'cos Regan's a REAL MAN who knows how to treat a bird proper, like. (I couldn't see any evidence in the credits, but Ms. Atwell must surely have been structurally reinforced with concrete for these scenes, given the bulk bearing down on her. Wallop? Bosh.)

More so than any Merchant-Ivory period movie, The Sweeney has a chip on its shoulder about class that you don't have to be a member of the Bullingdon Club to find weird indeed. You see it in the decision to have Old Etonian Damian Lewis Cockney it up to play Regan's generally sympathetic superior, who has to apologise, come the finale, for ever doubting Jack's methods; and again in the decision to give further exposure to tubby, charismaless street urchin and part-time cider flogger Plan B, who - as a big-screen idea - just isn't working. His sullen Carter, who Winstone's Regan seemingly keeps around just to make his knuckle-first methods of detection look a little smarter by comparison, cues a hitherto unheard-of reaction: making the viewer pine for Dennis "writes the theme tune, sings the theme tune, moans about the script, turns apologist for wifebeaters" Waterman.

The film has one fallback in the sheer, undeniable, unavoidable presence of Winstone, who's able to bare-handedly rip the nuances from the grunts Love and John Hodge have written for him ("How you doin'", "What a cunt") the way other actors do with the words in Aaron Sorkin monologues. And you sense Love getting to live out a lads' fantasy in taking over Trafalgar Square for a morning and having everyone run around with guns for a bit. Mostly, though, his film is lazy and unambitious, more or less exactly the picture you had in your head when you first heard Nick Love was directing an update of The Sweeney

Compare it to the Michael Mann films it wants to be - which offset their thick-ear cop business with rich strains of melancholy and philosophy - or the recent Polisse's questioning of the role our forces must now play in society, and it strikes you as so much silly posturing: the work of men who want their 70s glory days back, found the irony of TV's Life on Mars a bit on the poncy side, and spend their afternoons in the boozer waiting for The Professionals to replace On the Buses on ITV4. Heaven knows they're out there, and heaven knows The Sweeney has been made for them, not me. But even at the time of 2007's Outlaw and again around 2009's The Firm, I used to think Love was a good director stuck with unworthy material, resigning himself to giving a certain audience what they want. With each film he signs off on, that opinion is going daaahn: The Sweeney is a four at best.

The Sweeney opens in cinemas nationwide today.

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