Director: Nick Love
Writers: Nick Love, John Hodge, from characters created by Ian Kennedy Martin
Starring: Ray Winstone, Ben Drew, Damian Lewis, Hayley Atwell, Steven Mackintosh
Length: 112 min.
A scene in The Sweeney neatly epitomises the 40 bygone minutes and 60 to come. The eponymous Flying Squad wait in the forested outskirts of a townhouse whose owner, they suspect, is responsible for a mid-scale jewellery heist. The cue is given, the front and rear entrances bashed down, and the squad swarms in, swinging fists and baseball bats at anyone inside.
No, they don’t have a search warrant. One of the arrestees objects “I haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about – I was at a barbeque,” while his colleagues have their heads slammed into tables. The ringleader has a cast-iron alibi for the heist. But top cop Jack Regan (Ray Winstone) has a hunch, and that’s warrant enough to belie even the most statutory police convention. Guilty until proven innocent is apparently the Squad’s guiding belief.
This is the Sweeney, a supposedly elite London police squad governed by an unwritten license to bend the law in order to straighten it. They’re on the trail of a string of bank and jewellery heists that has claimed one casualty. They treat death knock interviewees with the brutality of criminals, and violently thrust their handguns into bystanders unlucky enough to be present during chase scenes through Trafalgar Square.
This blundering police squad is painfully numb to the fact that its members resemble highway patrolmen more than elite law enforcers. Only Officer Ivan Lewis (Steven Mackintosh) subjects the Sweeney’s methods to considerable scrutiny. But he’s a deadbeat; his wife is so bored with their marriage that she starts sleeping with Regan. And while Regan is eventually stripped of his badge and jailed for his insolent and lethal crime-fighting methods, these events serve only to pad out the run-time before he and his crew are ultimately redeemed.
The Sweeney has the spine of an archetypal British crime drama. The action sequences are suspenseful and cut with expertise, though substance runs thin in the interim between them. Inevitably, the film becomes weighed down with fruitless romantic back-stories revolving around its paper-thin characters. Winstone comes closest to three-dimensionality, lending the same unquestioned sense of belonging to the gravelly Regan as James Gandolfini brought to Tony Soprano.
The most distinctive technical contribution to the film is the score by Lorne Balfe, known for his collaborations with Hans Zimmer in the films of Christopher Nolan. Balfe’s dark, driven score proves complementary to the setting of a noir-ish London that teems with criminal undergrowth and is constantly awash with cold hues.
Yet despite these superior elements, The Sweeney is burdened beyond resuscitation by the unearned self-righteousness of its characters, who, for all their ineptitude, are glamorised with uncompromising loyalty. The film’s tagline is “act like a criminal to catch a criminal,” and its greatest weakness is its failure to critically interrogate this mantra. I can only ponder the Sweeney’s recruitment process.