'Sweeney' staggers in amid a hail of bullets and Cockney slang ★★★

Sexual AssaultFirearmsUnrest, Conflicts and WarArmed ConflictsHayley AtwellDamian LewisRay Winstone

Movie shootouts are often dazzling feats of marksmanship. Few filmmakers have the guts to show their version of "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" the way such gunfights actually go down — dozens of rounds, most missing the mark; pistols popping off, incessantly, their owners unable to hit the broad side of a crook in the heat of battle.

That's one thing the two-fisted British crime drama "The Sweeney" gets absolutely right. In a running gun battle, the pistol-packing coppers are at a distinct disadvantage to "villains" toting semi-automatic weapons. And neither has much luck at hitting ducking, moving noncivilian targets who are shooting back.

"The Sweeney," based on an influential British TV show of the 1970s, is a down-and-dirty genre picture that manages a couple of decent plot twists, a couple of passable car chases and two epic shootouts. The Brits may be decades behind the French in the car-chase game, but director Nick Love has studied his Michael Mann ("Heat") and learned how hard-boiled men and women of violence look, think, fight and shoot.

"The Sweeney" are cops, men and women who live for the adrenaline rush of the chase and the tussle, the satisfaction of the arrest: "We're the Sweeney. You're nicked."

They're working class and coarse, a flying squad of violent-crime detectives who still go by their unit's bloody Cockney nickname, slang for Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

The charismatic Ray Winstone plays their leader, Jack Regan, a "by any means necessary" brute with more than a hint of corruption about him. Not that he cares.

He's carrying on a sordid affair with a fellow cop (Hayley Atwell) who is also the wife of an internal affairs officer who'd like nothing more than to shut down the flying squad. Jack runs roughshod over his boss (Damian Lewis) and makes a point, after a big bust, of closing down the pub with his crew.

Then a jewelry store robbery ends with an execution, and Jack & Co. (Ben Drew plays his young protege) become obsessed with catching the villains who did it, willing to risk each other, scores of innocent civilians and prison terms to get their guy.

The film takes repeated "didn't see that coming" turns, which help. Director Love gives it an R-rated '70s look and feel, from the rough-and-tumble men's room sex to the immediacy of the violence. But he's as bad as any Hollywood hack at not showing the collateral damage of a shootout in crowded Trafalgar Square. And the script (he co-wrote it with John Hodge) loses track of most of the squad, and overflows with silly expediencies and the odd eye-rolling "You were right all along" apology.

Winstone, growling, sneering, threatening villains and dating way out of his league (but plainly able to through sheer macho and charisma) makes up for that. He sees to it that Regan and his not-so-sharp-shooters are the most believable, dangerous cops the screen has seen in ages.

'The Sweeney' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating:
R (for violence and language throughout and some sexual content)
Running time: 1:52
Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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