Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

WELCOME TO THE PUNCH. IFC Films, 2013. James MacAvoy, Mark Strong , Peter Mullan, Johnny Harris, David Morrissey. Written and directed by Eran Creevy.

   This Brit neo-noir bristles with violence, moral ambiguity, hard driving atmosphere, shadows, and edgy camera work, but like the best of the British crime films it is driven by character. The people are not violent cartoons, but human beings. The heroes are flawed and the villains all too human.

   The film opens with hard-driven London detective Max Lewinsky (James MacAvoy) catching a high end heist. Against orders he pursues the gas-masked villains on motorbikes even though he is unarmed. That ends badly with Max knee-capped by the leader or the team, Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong).

   Years later Lewinsky is in constant pain and addicted to pain killers, but still a cop, working with his partner and lover Sarah (Andrea Risenborough) on a case involving arms smuggled into England, assigned by his friend Metropolitan Police Commander Thomas Geiger (David Morrissey). When a low level street hood, Ruan Sternwood (Elyes Gabel), is killed in relation to the case, Max knows it will bring his long-since-missing father back for revenge, and his chance to bring him down.

   Sternwood shows up wanting revenge, and with the help of his old friend Roy Stewart (Peter Mullan) sets himself up with the men who killed Ruan. Soon he and Max find themselves alone against para-military killers with powerful connections and Max finds he was assigned to the case to fail.

   When Dean Warns (Johnny Harris), one of the para-military killers, murders Sarah because she is onto something, Max and Sternwood find themselves allied with one goal: vengeance.

   Welcome to the Punch moves quickly, and depends on strong performances with MacAvoy and Sternwood sketching in their relationship without a lot of extraneous dialogue. Nothing is spelled out in long-winded speeches, but is shown instead in their faces and actions. MacAvoy in particular brings a great deal of nuance to his wounded, angry, but honest policeman. Neither he, nor Strong are playing supermen for all their skills, and the shootouts have actual suspense because they are very human targets. The “Punch” of the title is a loading dock where the final odds against survival shootout takes place.

   They do survive bullet wounds that in real life would throw them into instant shock and likely kill them, but at least they are more than the famous flesh wound of a million cowboy pictures, and you can just buy that adrenalin might get them through to the end in the real world. If you truly did one of these realistically, the film would be a one-reeler, mostly watching the hero bleed out in ten minutes or less, if shock didn’t kill him first, while he lay on the ground in a semi-conscious stupor.

   These kinds of action films are no more realistic than comic book, fantasy, western, and science fiction films, and it is equally pointless to hold them to the standards of realism (or any film for that matter). This is no more the real world than a Fred Astaire musical is. At best film and literature create an illusion of reality, and you buy it or not.

   The complex plot behind all the violence hardly matters, but is filled in enough to cover the action and provide a suitably large conspiracy for the two loners to confront. There is enough at stake to make the conspiracy seem plausible, yet not so much it is improbable two violent men couldn’t bring it down once they know who the key players for.

   This is no cop-buddy film, not a British 48 Hours, or anything like. Max and Sternwood are drawn together by their loss, rage, and desire for revenge, but though they might respect each other, there aren’t going to be any hugs at the end of the film. There may be a brief moment when they recognize uncomfortably that they are more alike than not, but they are far from bosom buddies.

   I don’t want to oversell this, you are likely better off to catch it on cable, Red Box, or Netflix it than pay through the nose to see it in a theater, but it is a well thought out and acted action film. It’s no Lock Stock and Smoking Barrel, Get Carter (the Michael Caine original), Long Friday Night, Mona Lisa, or even the belly laugh cop buddy send up Hot Fuzz, but it is fast paced, stylishly shot, and it won’t insult your intelligence.

   There are no surprises, it is all predictable, but it is also marked by the good acting, script, direction, and action, all handled with nary a hitch, and you won’t come away from it with your seat numb because it ran on forever.

   There is something to be said for a film that does what it sets out to with success whether it is innovative and new or not, and the cinematography by Harry Escott is sharply done.

   If you watch it and like these kind of movies you will likely enjoy Welcome to the Punch quite a bit. It’s a well done gritty action film that has more brains and heart than many films like it with bigger stars, credits, and budgets.