London’s burning: The Sweeney ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 3, 2013)

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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 growling 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”. You also apparently have to act like one; Regan and his clannish unit bend the rules (as they violate 57 civil liberties) on a daily basis. But they always get their man, sealing every take down with the catchphrase “We’re the Sweeney…and you’re nicked!”

Regan’s questionable methods have put him at loggerheads with his supervisor (Damian Lewis), and 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 Regan has been playing bangers and mashers with his 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. 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; however with some clandestine help from his protégé (Ben Drew) he is soon “unofficially” back on the case.

Love’s film is based on a British TV series of the same name, which ran from 1975-1979. 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 crackling dialogue and amusing insult humor. Performances are excellent throughout; Winstone is perfectly cast, and I was impressed with Drew’s convincing performance as a reformed petty street criminal turned cop (you may know him as  rap artist “Plan B”).

Interestingly, while it has a number of similarities to the Mann film referenced earlier, there is one classic neo-noir that Love’s film particularly evoked, and that is William Friedkin’s 1971 thriller, The French Connection. Winstone’s character is a kindred spirit to Gene Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle.

Both bachelors, they are slovenly and bereft of 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.

Most significantly, both characters 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 perverse pleasure in taunting their pursuers. This is film noir as class warfare. Or, this could just be a well-made cops and robbers flick with cool chase scenes.

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