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Possessing plenty of sizzle but precious little steak, writer-director Eran Creevy’s Welcome to the Punch (2013) is a classic example of style-over-substance: although the film has a high degree of technical polish, with some truly gorgeous cinematography and a collection of strong performances, it’s also unnecessarily complex, emotionally hollow and more than a little trite. At the end of the day, sitting down with Welcome to the Punch is a lot like watching a particularly vibrant fireworks display: you may be captivated in the moment, oohing and aahing in all the right places, but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll remember any of the explosions after the smell of gunpowder has wafted away.

The film kicks off with a tense and genuinely thrilling (if overtly flashy) heist sequence, followed by a high-speed escape on motorbikes through the streets of London. The leader of the thieves is Jacob Sternwood (Low Winter Sun’s Mark Strong), while the pursuing detective is Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy): when Max finally catches up to his quarry, he earns a bullet in his leg, for his troubles, and one helluva grudge. Sternwood escapes and our plucky hero vows to tear up every inch of ground from here to hell in order to get him back.

Flashing forward three years, Max is still nursing along his wounded leg, while Jacob is hiding out somewhere in Iceland, waiting for the heat to die down. When Jacob’s hot-headed son, Ruan (Elyes Gabel), is injured during his own heist, however, his father decides to risk returning to England in order to check on him. Big mistake, as it turns out, since Max has been biding his time for just such an instance. He may have a level-headed partner, Sarah (Andrea Riseborough), to keep him in check but he also has three years of pain and lost time to pay back: suffice to say, Max has no intention of letting his prey slip away twice.

As Max and Sarah pursue Jacob and investigate the details behind Ruan’s botched heist, they also begin to uncover hints of some sort of conspiracy going on behind the scenes, a conspiracy which may or may not involve their commanding officer, Lieutenant Geiger (David Morrissey), and his second-in-command, the officiously slimy Nathan Bartnick (Daniel Mays). In a properly ironic twist, it seems that the only person who can shed light on Max’s potentially crooked peers is the one man who he’ll stop at nothing to destroy: Jacob Sternwood. Will Max and Jacob be able to set aside their bad blood in order to get to the bottom of things or will the need for revenge override the need for truth?

From a technical standpoint, Welcome to the Punch is just about as good as this type of film gets: Ed Wild (who also shot one of my all-time favorite films, Severance (2006)), turns in some suitably eye-popping cinematography, featuring a wealth of beautiful crane and helicopter shots, a cool color palette and some immaculately composed shots, while Harry Escott’s score is duly thrilling, amping the numerous car chase/shootouts up to almost mythic proportions. This is the kind of film made for a wall-rattling sound system, the kind of movie where every gunshot and tire screech roars from the screen larger than life and ready to knock the unsuspecting viewer through the far wall.

The fight and chase scenes are all nicely composed and choreographed, avoiding the overly hectic editing of something like the Bourne series and ending up closest to the string of hard-edged ’80s action films that starred Burt Reynolds and an assortment of cannon fodder. It’s quite easy to get caught up in the film’s rollercoaster ride, especially when great patches barrel forward at such a relentlessly breathless pace.

The problem, unfortunately, ends up being that the whole thing makes such imperfect sense. At times, there’s the distinct feeling that Creevy has written his characters (and film) into such a corner that a dizzying amount of misdirection is required to keep us all on-track. There are so many crosses, double-crosses and red herrings that I gave up trying to make sense of it all about halfway through: it was much easier (and more pleasurable) to just shut off that part of my brain and enjoy the (admittedly) flashy ride.

This ends up being a huge problem because logic and thrills don’t have to be mutually exclusive: there’s no rule-book that says a heist/revenge film has to be any more nonsensical than your average “drama,” no blueprint that requires the jettisoning of common sense. This, ultimately, is what separates a film like Welcome to the Punch from a truly exceptional action movie like John Wick (2014): they’re both relentless thrill rides but John Wick always feels likes there’s more going on below the surface than we can catch, despite the film’s deceptively “simple” structure, whereas Welcome to the Punch produces the exact opposite reaction.

More’s the pity, since Creevy makes good use of a pretty stellar cast. As usual, McAvoy is granite-block sturdy as the honest cop with a grudge, while Strong turns in his best performance (as far as I’m concerned) yet. There’s a nuance and complexity to Sternwood that Strong really brings to the surface, making a nice contrast to the other, more reptilian, side of his coin. Riseborough does well with the slightly thankless role of the do-gooder partner, although both Morrissey and Mays turn in pretty standard-issue crooked cop roles: since we never really get under any of these characters’ skins, many of the performances come across more as generic types than actual individuals, despite the universally strong performances. While some of the performances are head-and-shoulders above the others (McAvoy and Strong, in particular), none of the actors are bad: it kind of goes hand-in-hand with the film’s high level of polish.

Ultimately, I found Welcome to the Punch to be fun and fast-paced, if largely forgettable. While there are a handful of really great scenes here (the one where Dean shows up at his mother’s house, only to find Max and Jacob already waiting for him, is one of the finest bits of sustained tension I’ve seen, while there are any number of endlessly kinetic, thrilling shootouts), the whole film is just too clichéd and “comfortable” to ever carve out its own patch of ground. In many ways, Welcome to the Fold reminds me of another loud, flashy and, ultimately, disappointing action film, Michael Davis’ Shoot ‘Em Up (2007).  While there will always be a place for a few mindless thrills, I can’t shake the feeling that Eran Creevy’s Welcome to the Punch could have been so much more.