Gritty cop yarns aren’t what they used to be, literally. Nearly forty years ago, the notion of depicting law enforcers as imperfect was almost unthinkable, but fast forward to now and that’s suddenly become the standard. That’s the expectation. Police procedural stories no longer demand that their central characters be squeaky clean and pure to a fault; today, we want our television and movie cops to have pathos, to be flawed, and sometimes– maybe oftentimes– do whatever they have to in their pursuit of a crook. Maybe that’s a reflection of modern society, or maybe audiences just grew bored with archetypal goody two-shoes hero cops. Either way, ours is a world of Jimmy McNultys rather than Columbos or Stewart and Sally McMillans.
The police men and women of The Sweeney fit comfortably within the former category; they’re a rough and tumble crew, much more keen on dispensing justice at the end of a baseball bat than they are with due process. The film is a reinterpretation of the 1970s British TV show of the same name, famous primarily for being the first program of its kind to offer up coarse, human, and fallible protagonists along with what passed for graphic violence at the time. American audiences probably aren’t aware of the source material director Nick Love is calling upon here, but so much time has passed between then and now that that hardly matters– if you’ve seen The Shield, or The Wire, or even something as toothless as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, you’re as acquainted with The Sweeney as you reasonably need to be.
And if not, Love makes every effort to settle you in quickly and cleanly. We’re introduced to the officers that comprise the Sweeney– their official moniker is the Flying Squad, which is the division of London’s law enforcement that deals with violent crime– in short order as they bust up a robbery in progress with blunt force indelicacy. Jack Regan (Ray Winstone) leads the pack, barking out threats and busting skulls all in the name of law and order. But, as with most anti-hero cops, his misdeeds are starting to catch up with him; his unit is under internal affairs’ microscope for claims of police brutality, a dilemma exacerbated by the fact that Regan is sleeping with the lead inspector’s wife, Nancy (Hayley Atwell).
Meanwhile, a bank robbery leaves a civilian dead, and Regan starts picking up the trail of one of his past convictions while he gamely attempts to deflect the increased scrutiny upon his team. That separation between Regan’s better and worse merits as a lawman marks the most classical dichotomy in police drama characterization; maybe the guy lies and cheats and violates as many ordinances as he upholds, but he’s the bad cop with a heart of gold, driven a desire to put “real” criminals behind bars. We know Jack Regan, even if we haven’t watched a single episode of the original TV show. He’s Vic Mackey’s forefather.
That sense of familiarity, however, is the film’s core problem. When Ian Kennedy Martin’s groundbreaking series hit the air almost four decades ago, it wound up having a tangible cultural impact and an influence over the genre it belonged to. Love’s vision doesn’t carry the same classification-altering punch; all told his movie just takes Martin’s creation full circle, making The Sweeney the end result of the man’s efforts in ’75. Unfortunately, that means that you’ve already watched The Sweeney, which means that you can probably predict the outcome of the majority of its plots and beats with relative ease.
Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe a film’s pedigree shouldn’t be held against it. Not everything can be on the cutting edge, after all, and The Sweeney certainly stands a league or two away from it. Love doesn’t have the same forward-thinking innovation as Martin, and his film is simply a product of its time. Does that make The Sweeney bad? Not by half; the film happens to be a serviceable entry in the cop thriller genre, albeit one that rides on the strength of Winstone’s gruff brand of strong-arm heroism. The Sweeney is very much his movie, though it gives a generous amount of material to Ben Drew, a British rapper who here plays George, Regan’s right-hand man.
Together, they bore through the film’s narrative, visiting some pretty spectacular violence upon the hapless crooks who wind up in their path. Drew, as it happens, gets to carry out one of The Sweeney‘s most memorable bits of excessive force while Winstone languishes off-screen; the young MC proves adept in the art of ass-kicking, though even the most exciting bits of action ring with the kind of worrisome vigilante fascism celebrated in films like Death Wish. Politics aren’t directly in play here, though, and the bad guys are really quite despicable even when their rights are blatantly being violated, but that just plays into The Sweeney‘s amoral fantasy that might makes right.
Troubling ethics aside, The Sweeney is good, grimy fun, but one wonders what Love could have done with the Martin’s characters if he had a bit more vision. Filtered through his personal lens, we’re given Ian Kennedy Martin by way of Christopher Nolan; it’s difficult even at the best of times to see anything other than Love’s influences on display here, and so the picture ends up existing as workmanlike pastiche. Giving credit where it’s due, he peppers The Sweeney with enough humor, machismo, and energy to make the effort worthwhile, but it’s difficult not to imagine what this film could have been in the hands of someone capable of putting their own stamp on it.