Watch it with us: Netflix streaming
One of my favorite movies in terms of sheer rewatchability is The Fugitive. Anything that involves a cop and a criminal (innocent or otherwise) joining forces to fight a common enemy is my catnip. The Netflix description of Welcome to the Punch (2013) promises just that, plus James McAvoy and Mark Strong, so I was all in. McAvoy plays the cop, Lewinsky, and Strong plays the criminal, Sternwood (not innocent at all, in this case). The movie opens with Lewinsky setting up a sting operation, defying orders to wait for backup, and going after Sternwood alone. Sternwood shoots him in the knee and escapes, and Lewinsky gets reprimanded for his recklessness. Several months later, following the shooting death of a young thug, Sternwood’s son turns up with a gunshot wound to the stomach from what turns out to be the same unidentified gun, as well as a bag full of money. By now Lewinsky is jaded and bitter, and he just wants to do his work and keep his head down. But his partner Hawks (Andrea Riseborough) convinces him that they need to keep asking questions. At the same time, Sternwood comes out of hiding to find out who shot his son and exact his own vengeance. When their paths cross again, Sternwood and Lewinsky join forces out of necessity, and they’re both forced to reevaluate their old animosity in light of the greater dangers they both face.
I really can’t overstate how much I enjoyed James McAvoy and Mark Strong in this movie. The casting is great from top to bottom—David Morrissey has an excellent turn as a police lieutenant, and Riseborough is great as McAvoy’s long-suffering partner. But McAvoy and Strong really elevate this film. Finding an actor who can deliver lines convincingly in an action role is no joke. I was agreeably surprised to see how fully McAvoy embodies the jaded-cop persona physically as well as emotionally. There’s a scene early in the movie that takes place in the hospital where Sternwood the younger is being treated. McAvoy’s character figures out he’s been duped and that Sternwood is still on the premises, and he immediately takes off in pursuit. For a guy who’s small in stature, McAvoy looks incredibly cool running down a hallway with a gun in his hand.
Strong himself has a long and storied history of playing bad guys, but rarely in roles as nuanced as this one. He’s humanized by his grief for his son, but the film never lets you forget that he’s also a dangerous criminal. It doesn’t soft-pedal the fact that he once shot and gravely injured McAvoy’s character, who asks him later why he didn’t just kill him instead. Strong’s character responds simply, “For what?” Both characters are intensely practical, so when the most practical thing to do is to join forces, they do it, though not without some baggage.
The film also skirts one of my most hated movie tropes, which is where the bad guy, who has previously been killing his victims with rapacious glee, suddenly starts taking prisoners for no reason except to give the good guys time to enact a heroic rescue. I didn’t get any pleasure out of our prisoner’s untimely demise here, which is unexpected and shocking. But her death makes far more sense than holding her and giving the good guys time to rescue her.
Welcome to the Punch is also fascinating as a cultural artifact. The central conflict revolves around the fact that policemen in the UK are usually not armed, and this opens them up to certain dangers. Given the recent rash of gun violence perpetrated by the police here in the US, it’s interesting to see the other side of the coin. Without giving too much away about the ending, the villains in this film have a noble goal—to secure greater protection for the police—although their methods for achieving it are unorthodox and ultimately tragic. Lewinsky spends much of the film bitter and angry over the fact that Sternwood shot him, blaming his stalled career on the injury and on the fact that he wasn’t armed when he tried to arrest Sternwood. But later Sternwood saves his life from the real killer, who is ironically doing all of this in order to stop gun violence against the police. The film deals with these complexities with a light touch, keeping the focus where it should be—on the characters.
– Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.