The Sweeney is a celebration of shoddy police work. Not that it’s different from many other cop movies in that respect. If you think about it, the amount of collateral damage that piles up in the genre should get most of the silver screen’s badge-carrying heroes fired. Cars fly into buildings, public spaces get blown to bits, and innocent civilians get drawn into the fray. Usually we don’t even think about it. The Sweeney, to its credit, is often about its own indulgent and bombastic style.
The cops in question are London’s Flying Squad, known as ‘The Sweeney’ by way of some Cockney rhyming slang (Flying Squad sounds like Sweeney Todd). They are lovingly adapted by writer/director Nick Love from the classic British television show of the same name, which ran from 1975 to 1979. Ray Winstone takes on the role of the head of the squad, hot-heated Jack Regan. His second in command is George Carter (Ben Drew), an up-and-coming young detective whose ambition is only matched by his loyalty to Regan.
The Sweeney’s job, ostensibly, is to prevent armed robberies. They accomplish this by interrupting crimes in progress, always out of uniform, and usually brandishing baseball bats.
Their style is full of physical excess, in life as in work. When they stop a heist everyone gets bashed, usually including the surrounding architecture. When they get together to celebrate, they drink a little too much and take over the bar with their noise. Everything they do or say is loud, a little bit brutal, and potentially berserk. The bad guys they’re after are immaterial, an assortment of local thugs and some Eastern European bank robbers that could be in any other British crime flick. The real antagonist of The Sweeney is reasoned, departmental regulation.
This intrusion comes in the form of Ivan Lewis (Steven Mackintosh), the stodgy and effete Internal Affairs officer who takes issue with all of Regan’s smashing. Usually Detective Chief Inspector Haskins (Damian Lewis, who does not get nearly enough to do) keeps him away, but this time Regan has gone too far. Incidentally, Lewis’s wife Nancy (Hayley Atwell) is a member of the Sweeney squad. And, of course, she’s cheating on her stiff husband with Regan. The fight over the ethics and tactics of the squad is therefore both personal and professional. As the team continues to bash their way through large sections of London, one begins to wonder when things will finally come to a head.
The core of the film is Winstone and his enormous presence. His Regan is blunt, strong-willed and hot-heated, often to his own disadvantage. The camera is obsessed with his size, placing his impressive weight alongside the brittle Lewis and the younger, more compact Carter. DP Simon Dennis regularly frames a shot to maximize the size of Winstone’s head, often letting it take up half of the screen. His gut, his penchant for the profane and his gruff delivery are the physical incarnation of the Sweeney and the strongest part in the film.
At his side is Drew, playing Detective Carter with a blend of measured responsibility and a social brutality he learned from his friend and superior. Regan will never give up the unguided, quick-to-anger approach of the unit but perhaps Carter will. Drew gives an admirable performance, bolstering his entry into the world of British independent film. A rapper under the stage name Plan B, he directed his first feature last year, the multi-protagonist crime drama Ill Manors. His performance here is a bit like his efforts as a director: well-intentioned, dedicated work that promises a bright future more than it impresses in the short term.
The conflict at the center of The Sweeney is a fairly simple one. In the clash between Regan’s violence and Lewis’s stodginess, Carter must pick a side. Yet Love’s screenplay finds itself running off the rails, falling victim to the Sweeney’s recklessness. There’s a particularly impressive set piece that opens at a bank and expands to a public square, a library and a parking garage. Shots are fired from every angle, masked Serbian bandits are brandishing machine guns, and it’s a miracle anyone at all gets out alive. As the casualties list rapidly shifts from furniture to actual people’s lives, it becomes increasingly obvious that there’s no way Regan can get away with any of this.
Somewhere along the way, Love drops the ball. It’s clear that he can’t give in and let Internal Affairs kill The Sweeney, but to let them win the day he needs to change the internal logic of his movie. He begins to send The Sweeney into the realm of the absurd by dispensing with logic and relying entirely on firepower. This could have worked brilliantly, tossing caution to the wind and making Winstone’s near-iconic cranium into an icon of charming police brutality. Unfortunately, Love doesn’t go quite far enough. There’s too much grief, too much hand-wringing. A celebration of disastrous police work is only fun if the film has fun showing it to us, and doesn’t take itself seriously. Missing the mark on excess, The Sweeney becomes just another middle of the road cop movie in its final moments.
The Upside: Strong action sequences; Ray Winstone’s head deserves its own movie
The Downside: Homeland’s Damian Lewis and Downton Abbey’s Allen Leech are underused
On the Side: Ray Winstone actually had a brief part on the original The Sweeney TV series, still a teenager.