‘The Sweeney’: Winning Winstone

March 1, 2013

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Though Ray Winstone has been a TV star in Great Britain since the mid-1970s, a lot of Americans got their first sighting of the beefy British actor with Gary Oldman’s 1997’s “Nil By Mouth” or 2000’s “Sexy Beast.”

Since then, he’s created a small niche for himself in American films playing thugs, gangsters and other unsavory types – but always with an intelligence and wit that makes his characterizations unexpected, in films from “The Departed” to “Edge of Darkness.”

He’s perfectly cast in “The Sweeney,” playing Detective Inspector Nick Regan, leader of the London Metro Police flying squad, which is nicknamed “The Sweeney” (after an obscure bit of Cockney rhyming slang). Perhaps ringleader is the better word.

Make no mistake – he’s a dedicated cop, but also one who’s looking out for Numero Uno. So when his crew makes a bust involving a quantity of small gold bars, the number that get turned in for evidence is slightly smaller than the number they collected – because Regan has pocketed a couple, which he turns into cash (though it’s not necessarily out of self-interest).

His merry band isn’t above rolling up on a target brandishing baseball bats and axe handles. They’re less interested in scientific crime detection (though they can do that, too) than in the whup-ass side of law enforcement; there’s a very ’70s, “Walking Tall” feel to this cinematic portrayal of police work.

But the Sweeney finds itself besieged from all sides when it takes on a case involving a bank robbery in which a bystander is summarily executed. Even as Regan spurs his crew on to figure out why – and how to foil the bank-robbing team’s next job – he’s also fighting a rearguard action against the police internal-affairs investigator, Lewis (Steven Mackintosh). Lewis is convinced that, if he just pushes and digs hard enough, he will uncover the evidence he needs to take Regan down – although he hasn’t noticed that his wife is sleeping with Regan.

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Plotwise, there’s not a lot of heavy-lifting here: no astonishing plot twists or revelations. It’s more about the tension between Regan’s intensity in pursuing these criminals, restrained by his even-keeled No. 2 (Ben Drew, also known as rapper Plan B), and the unexpected elements in his personal life he’s forced to juggle. There is, not surprisingly, tension between Regan and his commander, an appreciative but besieged official played by “Homeland” star Damian Lewis, in a relatively thankless role.

This is Winstone’s show and it’s a perfect showcase for his bluff, easygoing machismo. His Regan is a block of granite; he may be chipped, even cracked – but he’s still solid and formidable. Yet Winstone is light on his feet, his power all implied; he’s born to play this lovable scoundrel, with an emphasis on his rough, rogue elements.

Director Nick Love keeps things moving, creating a police procedural that is exciting and flashy without emphasizing style over substance (something the Brits seem to understand in a way that Hollywood rarely does). Still, there’s a slightly constricted feel here, as though the film is pushing against a formula – almost as if it’s a TV show that’s been adapted for film.

Which, in fact, it is. “The Sweeney” was a popular series on British TV in the 1970s, now repurposed for films. So the tropes are familiar, even if Love manages to rise above them overall. You still get whiffs of the kind of American TV series – everything from “Hill Street Blues” to “NYPD Blue” to “The Shield” – that were influenced by the British original.

Still, with Winstone, Lewis, Atwell and Mackintosh among the cast, “The Sweeney” is engagingly entertaining, rough-and-tumble and hard-edged in all the right ways. Inconsequential, to be sure – but it’s leagues ahead of such similar Hollywood efforts as the film versions of “SWAT,” “The Mod Squad” or Michael Mann’s bloated, draggy big-screen “Miami Vice.”

Instead, “The Sweeney” is sleek and driven, the kind of movie that takes you out of your life for a couple of hours without leaving you feeling resentful.

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