Action Cinema Comes to Albion: Eran Creevy on Welcome to the Punch
Michael Mann and John Woo provide the prime influences for <i>Shifty</i> director <b>Eran Creevy</b>'s breathless new film <i>Welcome to the Punch</i>. We spoke to the director ahead of its UK première at Glasgow Film Festival 2013
My interview with Eran Creevy begins with a pitch. “Someone should do a hit-man movie with [Peter] Mullan,” he enthuses when we sit down to speak ahead of Glasgow Film Festival’s UK première of Welcome to the Punch, his fine new action movie in which Mullan has a memorably menacing supporting role. “It would be amazing, like his own version of Taken. If Peter Mullan was coming after you, you’d be like ‘shit!’”
It’s a nifty proposal, as is that of his new feature in which he blends the icy visuals of Michael Mann with the stylised direction of John Woo and sets it in a noirish London that calls to mind Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City. The result is a balletic blast of cops and robbers that’s more than a match for its high-budget Hollywood cousins. Those familiar with the Essex-born filmmaker through 2009’s Shifty, his rough-hewn debut about a low-rent drug dealer, might be surprised at the shift in gear. For Creevy, however, a high-octane shoot ’em up was a natural progression.
“I could have done more films in the realist vein of Shifty, but I guess I’m just trying to stay true to who I am as a filmmaker,” he tells me. “My inspiration as a kid was Hong Kong action cinema – Hard Boiled, Infernal Affairs, The Killer, A Better Tomorrow, Ringo Lam’s City on Fire. All those influences bleed through and I think you just have to kind of use it as a springboard in order to do your own material. I always knew I wanted to make movies about goodies and baddies, cowboys and Indians, knights and dragons.”
If this description suggests a movie where the morals are as streamlined as the action, you’d be mistaken. Punch centres on Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy), a Met detective who was once the most promising young gun on the force. His demeanor sours, however, when his knee is crippled during a high speed chase through London in which he lets high-profile bank robber Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong) slip through his fingers. This chase provides Punch’s feverish pre-credits opening. The rest of the film takes place three years later, where we see a disheveled Lewinsky extracting fluid from his knackered knee with a syringe and being humiliated by his superiors, all the while swearing revenge on Sternwood, who’s become his white whale.
“When you watch Quantum of Solace – and no disrespect to Quantum of Solace – but you could watch the same action scene backwards as you could forwards. You couldn’t tell what the hell was going on” – Eran Creevy
“James McAvoy’s character is a very troubled man who’s coming to terms with being shot by his nemesis.” Creevy explains. “He’s treading water: he can’t move on with his life, he’s stuck in the past and he’s not the man he once was.” In Mark Strong’s Sternwood, on the other hand, we have a more sympathetic character – he’s far more heroic than our hero. “I think that’s maybe the European sensibility sneaking in, we try to take a left turn when it looks like we’re going to take a right.”
Creevy’s most welcome left-field move in Punch is his approach to action. It’s pleasingly at odds with the current mode of shaky close-ups and quick-cuts favoured by everyone from Michael Bay to Paul Greengrass, a style that's been aptly dubbed chaos cinema. “When you watch Quantum of Solace – and no disrespect to Quantum of Solace – but you could watch the same action scene backwards as you could forwards. You couldn’t tell what the hell was going on.” The various stand-offs, punch-ups and gun battles that punctuate Punch’s story of police corruption, by contrast, are closer to Busby Berkeley than The Bourne Ultimatum. “I loved musicals when I was a kid,” Creevy reveals. “My mum used to make me watch Calamity Jane and the Doris Day films and, later, I was watching and rewatching something like Thriller, by John Landis, on VHS. I just love the choreography of those dance routines.”
A teenage Creevy found the same graceful movements in the cinema emerging from Hong Kong in the late 80s/early 90s; those films’ clear-eyed direction and creative use of space proved a chief inspiration for Punch. “Sometimes I would have an idea of a location and I’d get there and it wouldn’t quite be right – it wouldn’t be how I imagined it in my head. I wasn’t that keen to shoot at the Ministry of Sound nightclub, for example, but then we looked at the space and it had tunnels and there’s balconies and we’re like, ‘no, we can make this work, we can make this work to our advantage,’ and we tried to design a much cooler, intimate kind of choreographed ballet of of bullets.” The result is a world where an unarmed police detective with a limp can, in super slowmo, duck and dive his way across an empty dancefloor through a shower of gunfire without getting a nick. “It’s a slightly different universe from Shifty,” Creevy admits with a laugh. “It’s like Kill Bill to Reservoir Dogs, they don’t exist within the same world. Those characters of Shifty couldn’t walk into a scene in Welcome to the Punch.”
The mention of Tarantino is apposite: Creevy talks with a similar motor-mouth energy. His enthusiasm is infectious and this seems to have transfered to Punch: a big part of its success is down to its breathless verve and goofy charm. But, like Tarantino, there’s a naïvety there too. Punch's politics are confused. As its twisty plot unravels it becomes clear that the villain of the piece is an ambitious Home Secretary who's in league with a weapons cartel and trying to arm the London police force. Where the confusion arises is that the only way to stop this conspiracy is for Lewinsky and Sternwood to team up and get their hands on – to quote Neo in The Matrix – guns, lots of guns! “Do I think the British police force should be armed? No I don’t,” Creevy says when I point out his film's mixed message. “Do I believe that they should be better equipped and have better training and better armour and have better facilities to help deal with the situation at hand? Yes I do.”
As far fetched as Punch’s tooled up Blighty might feel, Creevy argues that these machinations aren't total fantasy. “When we were making the film and writing the script there were the London riots that started when that police officer shot that young guy,” he tells me. “You had the contrast of the police officer using maximum force and shooting someone, then the police being totally inactive and not doing anything when the riots started. They were caught between a rock and a hard place,” he explains. “At the time, Boris Johnson was trying to put armed police with machine guns on to a Hackney estate and the residents were up in arms about it – pardon the pun.”
Welcome to the Punch isn’t the only example of the Brittish action movie in the last few years. The likes of Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz), Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) and Nick Love (The Sweeney) have also looked beyond our cinematic traditions for inspiration. You could almost call it a wave. “I think you've just got to look at what that generation was brought up on,” Creevy says when I mention the increase in genre films being made on these shores. “People like Paul Andrew Williams [Cherry Tree Lane], Gareth Evens [The Raid] and myself grew up on Die Hard and Predator and Lethal Weapon, and the Far East martial arts movement was making a massive impression on Hollywood when we were teenagers. It was in The Matrix, Jackie Chan was in Rush Hour, it was everywhere you went.”
These influences look to continue with Creevy's upcoming projects. First up is Cry Havoc, a Korean-style revenge tragedy, which he describes as “a homage to The Yellow Sea and I Saw the Devil.” Also in the works is Fear of Violence, which is “about a guy who escapes from prison with only 24-hours to track down and stop a serial killer,” and a possible follow-up to Punch. “I do have ideas for a sequel. It would definitely be set in Hong Kong. It would be called The Hong Kong Sector and we would find Mark Strong in Hong Kong at the beginning of the movie and there would be a prison break out.”
Creevy isn’t all guns and violence, though. Beneath his London geezer exterior there’s a softer side, as exemplified by his most intriguing high-concept idea: Autobahn, a chase movie set in Germany that’s “Speed meets (500) Days of Summer.”
We can also hold him to this Peter Mullan hit-man movie too but, looking at his schedule, we might have to wait a while.
Welcome to the Punch is released in the UK on 15 Mar by Momentum pictures