Chris Raphael/IFC Films
James McAvoy, left, and Mark Strong in Eran Creevy’s film following thieves after a heist.
Watching “Welcome to the Punch” I kept hoping for clowns, the inflatable kind that you sock in the head and that bounce back again and again — or maybe a couple of pugilists with tragic faces and Michelangelo musculature. While this curiously titled, intently self-serious British cops-and-robbers showdown doesn’t feature any clowns, it does include plenty of mano-a-mano action and a clutch of presumably unintended laughs. This isn’t a warning. It’s a recommendation.
There are good movies and plenty more bad ones and many, many more that fall somewhere in between. And then there are enjoyable absurdities like “Welcome to the Punch,” which contain evaluative multitudes and which, scene by scene, register as not bad, pretty good and flat-out ridiculous. As such, movies like this hit a very specific cinephile sweet spot. They’re decent enough to keep your eyes fixed on the screen, hooking you with performances, pictorial beauty, even a gesture. Yet they’re also inept enough — they strain under the weight of their own illogic, their clumsiness and influences — to make you wish you were watching this with your favorite film nerds so you could share in that great communal ritual: talking over the fun bad movie.
The opening of “Welcome to the Punch” (the title refers to a location) begins in a promisingly mysterious room with strong graphic lines, pulsing screens, silky camera moves and a body on the floor. This scene is soon embellished with four men in black suits and gas masks who are carrying big bags and large guns and appear to be executing the final stages of a heist in a glassy tower of power. From their cool and precise choreography as they climb on four black motorcycles, roaring into the desolate icy-blue mean streets, it is immediately evident that the writer and director Eran Creevy, a self-professed genre geek, has absorbed Michael Mann’s crime epic “Heat” into his bloodstream.
The thieves are soon joined in that strangely uninhabited night by a cop, Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) who, from the looks of his clenched jaw and zooming car, is very angry, very determined and terminally alone. After some cat and mouse among the urban buttes and mesas Max tracks the men to a tunnel. A voice on his police radio sings out warnings about not following them. Max does; he’s that kind of cop or at least that type of genre staple. Resourcefully he corners one of the thieves, Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong). True to his name, Sternwood coldly shoots Max, but only wounds him. Sternwood is that kind of villain, and this is definitely that kind of movie.
From the way he piles on the sleek surfaces and anomie, Mr. Creevy doesn’t appear to be suffering from the anxiety of influence; instead he seems to be reveling in it. “Welcome to the Punch” doesn’t just owe a debt to Michael Mann it also, in conscious homage or not, skims from Mann-influenced titles like “Infernal Affairs,” the great Hong Kong crime trilogy. More than a few sequences in “Welcome to the Punch,” including the inaugural chase sequence on empty streets (Where is everybody? you may wonder), suggest as well that Mr. Creevy has made a study of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” series. Unlike Quentin Tarantino, however, whose transformation of his many influences is the foundation of a personal vision, Mr. Creevy engages not in metamorphosis but in simulation.
Part of the pleasure of watching a movie like “Welcome to the Punch” is peeling away the multiple layers of inspiration, isolating the allusions and figuring out if they’re what works or whether the movie earns a little credit. On the evidence of this one movie Mr. Creevy can’t write worth a lick — the dialogue is often risible, the plot complications uninteresting, the twists overly telegraphed — but the performances are solid and sometimes better than that, specifically in the case of Mr. Strong, an actor who can find depth even in shallows like these. There are so many familiar faces here — Andrea Riseborough, Peter Mullan, David Morrissey, Jason Flemyng, Ruth Sheen — that you half expect Daniel Radcliffe to materialize amid the bullets and nonsense. But it isn’t that kind of movie.
Welcome to the Punch
Opens Wednesday in Manhattan.
Written and directed by Eran Creevy; director of photography, Ed Wild; edited by Chris Gill; music by Harry Escott; production design by Crispian Sallis; costumes by Natalie Ward; produced by Rory Aitken and Ben Pugh; released by IFC Films. At the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: James McAvoy (Max Lewinsky), Mark Strong (Jacob Sternwood), Andrea Riseborough (Sarah), Peter Mullan (Roy), David Morrissey (Thomas ), Jason Flemyng (Harvey), Ruth Sheen (Iris).
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