The sheer wastefulness of Eran Creevy’s Welcome to the Punch is off-putting enough, but the film is also falsely painted-up as a crime epic. As Creevy sees it, the rivalry between lawman Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) and stoic thief Sternwood (Mark Strong), the latter of whom has been in hiding ever since shooting Max during a getaway, is one deserving of the visual and auditory grandiosity he provides. But the sense of epic size is merely overcompensation, as the writer-director has produced a shambling, inept micro-actioner with zero ideas to match the ambitious sweep of the imagery, making Sternwood and Lewinsky’s face-off something more akin to the stuff of bad primetime television.
The shooting of Sternwood’s son brings the master criminal out of hiding amid a steep escalation in gun crime in England and whispers of corruption in the police department, going all the way up to the commissioner (David Morrissey). Both Strong and McAvoy are talented performers, but Creevy is only interested in their most overtly proven skills: Strong’s quietly imposing brooding and McAvoy’s wildly sensitive temperament, corroded by cynicism. Their characters are little more than their dispositions, and the same can be said about Creevy’s use of Morrissey’s bureaucrat, Peter Mullan’s charismatic gangster, and Andrea Riseborough’s quirky investigator. Creevy’s script, light on conflict and bereft of wit, builds the film as a sluggish game of cat and mouse, compounded by a mysterious arms deal brokered by Daniel Mays’s double agent and Johnny Harris’s ruthless assassin, and the narrative often feels incomplete as it busily advances.
The erratic narrative structure is insufficiently propped up by huge, cold set pieces; Creevy favors shoot-outs in moonlit hotel rooms, maze-like shipping yards, and empty nightclubs replete with twitching spotlights. Nevertheless, the filmmaker’s inability to make any distinct or memorable use of these settings suggests a shallow reproduction of Christopher Nolan’s more operatic tendencies. The film feels as if it’s constantly in a rush to get to the next gunfight or the next would-be surprise reveal or reversal, omitting any sense of humor or life’s unpredictable pulse and indulging clichés that are never even paid off in any satisfying way. In a sense, this makes the film’s title, derived from the story’s climactic setting, near-literal, as Welcome to the Punch is constantly erupting into frivolous violent chaos, but with a polished sheen that makes it feel wrongly restrained, even cordial.