Although there’s nothing glaringly wrong with The Sweeney, a police drama adapted from the 1970s British TV series, it’s so standard in its approach that there’s hardly anything memorable about it. The story, while competent, is essentially a rundown of cop-movie clichés, only some of which have remained endearing after decades of use. The characters, though appropriate for the material, are developed in such a way that an audience can figure out early on who has what role to play. Perhaps the film will mean something more to fans of the original series – or, at the very least, to those aware of the series’ existence. For people like me, who went into it knowing absolutely nothing about the series, it will come off as capable yet routine. It gets the job done, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s successful.
The title refers to a nickname bestowed to the Flying Squad, a branch of the Specialist Crime & Operations section of London’s Metropolitan Police Service. The main purpose of the Flying Squad is to investigate commercial armed robberies, in part by forming undercover ties with the city’s criminal factions. This tactic has been heavily criticized, most notably in the late 1970s, at which point the Flying Squad itself was investigated amidst accusations of bribery and police corruption. It was during this period that the TV series was created. It was one of the first in British history to realistically depict cops; the characters were fallible, brutal, and willing to bend any rules that prevented them from getting the job done. It also broke ground with its depictions of violence and the number of onscreen death scenes.
This new film adaptation, updated to take place in the present day (or, more accurately, in 2012, the year it was released in the U.K.), adheres to this formula. This is admirable, although I suspect it had more to do with appeasing Sweeney fans than with creating a satisfying narrative. What was original in the ‘70s has since become mundane; today’s audiences are accustomed to stories portraying flawed cops and their relentless pursuit of justice, and Lord knows violence and death have in general long since ceased to be cinematically shocking. The central character is Squad officer Jack Regan (Ray Winstone), a tough-talking and perpetually frustrated man who must resort to illegal maneuvers in order to pay off his informant (Alan Ford). At Regan’s side is his young protégé George Carter (Ben Drew), who has been indebted to Regan for much of his life.
One half of the twofold plot involves the Flying Squad investigating the robbery of a jewelry store, during which one of the hostages was shot dead. Regan has reason to believe that his old enemy, Francis Allen (Paul Anderson), is responsible, even though there’s no evidence to support his suspicions. The other half involves an internal investigation on the Squad – or, more specifically, on Regan, whose unorthodox methods give his superiors headaches. Leading the investigation is Ivan Lewis (Steven Mackintosh), who has a vendetta against Regan, as he knows Regan is having an affair with his wife, Squad member Nancy Lewis (Hayley Atwell). Both plotlines will eventually converge, at which point the case will become painfully personal for Regan.
The film has all the expected action thriller elements, from shootouts to car chases to running through the streets. There’s also a fair amount of wry humor, most of which is appropriate given the material. All these elements are perfectly acceptable on a technical level, but stylistically, we don’t see much of anything we haven’t already gotten from countless other cop dramas. This extends to the development of the Regan character, who we can count on to be hardened, weary, and driven by his personal need for justice. His relationship with Nancy, while certainly dramatic enough for a movie like this, doesn’t come off much like a plausible plotline. If anything, it’s as if the Nancy character was inserted into the screenplay out of obligation to include a female love interest. She serves no real purpose until the third act; let’s just say that she motivates Regan as he works his way to the film’s climactic final shootout.
The single most unnecessary character is Regan’s superior, Frank Haskins (Damian Lewis), who appears only when it’s most convenient for the story. His only apparent functions are to pull strings for Regan and to look as suave in a business suit as any man who has ever graced the cover of GQ magazine. I understand that Haskins was also a character in the original series, and that his exclusion from the film would have incurred the wrath of purists. That still doesn’t explain why the filmmakers couldn’t give him anything more to do. The Sweeney is the kind of film that’s easy to appreciate superficially, especially in regards to genre expectations, but difficult to accept as something to be taken seriously. It lacks that extra spark of imagination necessary to set it apart from all the others.
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