The Sweeney is a movie based on a mid-’70s British cop show that was never shown in the States. The original was violent, profane and wildly politically incorrect; the new movie, just released on Blu-ray and DVD, tries to keep up the tradition.
If you’re American, all of this is pretty confusing. In real life, “The Sweeney” is actually named The Flying Squad, a unit of the London Metropolitan Police that investigates commercial armed robberies. The nickname comes from the always-confusing world of Cockney rhyming slang: “flying squad” rhymes with “Sweeney Todd,” which allegedly leads to “The Sweeney.”
The original show paints a pretty bleak and dingy picture of pre-Thatcherite England. The iconic detective Jack Regan cracks the cases because he lives down in the lower classes with the informants who tip him off about the robberies they either prevent or they solve. Regan fights, drinks, sleeps around and yells at his bureaucratic bosses. His junior partner George Carter tries to smooth over the damage. TV Regan was played by John Thaw, who got famous later in America for playing the much quieter Inspector Morse on PBS.
The Sweeney was a huge influence on UK show biz folks who grew up in that era and it inspired the tone and look of the recent time-travel cop show Life on Mars (which in turn inspired a not-quite-as-good U.S. version starring Jason O’Mara and Harvey Keitel). So it’s not surprising that someone got around to making a movie based on the show.
You have to imagine the folks who made this movie, which stars Ray Winstone as Regan and Ben Drew as Carter, sat around talking about “broadening the appeal for international audiences” while still “maintaining the integrity of the franchise.” Aside from a few catchphrases lifted from the original series (“You’re nicked!”), the movie doesn’t have much in common with the original show.
Director Nick Love makes London look spectacular on what was likely a limited budget. Rather than letting Regan scrounge around the back rooms of pubs and low-rent auto garages looking for clues, the new movie lets him live in a high-rise hotel room and work is a modern office block. The plot could’ve come from any random cop show over the last fifty years, something about a private bank heist and Eastern European organized crime.
The movie attracted a lot of high-profile talent: Ben Drew is famous in Europe for his musical career as rapper Plan B, Damian Lewis used his break from shooting Homeland to take a small part in the film and Captain America love interest Hayley Atwell signed on for some beauty-and-the-beast romance with Regan. Everyone’s having a good time and takes the script at face value.
If you’ve made it this far in the review, there are two really compelling reasons to see this movie. After the film’s main robbery, there’s an extended shootout in Trafalgar Square that bleeds into Saint James park with Buckingham Palace visible in the background. It’s a tribute to the original show’s iconic influence that the producers were allowed to film the scene: imagine if the next Die Hard movie (there will be another one, you know it, stop objecting that it hasn’t been announced) featured a gun battle on the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Capitol steps.
The other key scene is the climactic car chase that ends up in a trailer park. This time the producers enlisted the guys from Top Gear to create a more realistic and/or amazing crash sequence. Car chase in a trailer park is every bit as good as it sounds.
The movie was barely released in theaters here but it was enough of a hit in the rest of the world that they’ve already ordered a sequel. The Blu-ray and DVD are both loaded with the bonus features, including excellent documentaries about the Trafalgar Square and trailer park scenes and full-blown commentaries from the director and producers. If you buy the Blu-ray, you get a DVD copy thrown in but neither version comes with a digital download or UltraViolet copy of the movie. Once you accept that the movie isn’t trying to reproduce the original TV series, you’ll notice how good this movie looks compared to cop movies that cost at least five times as much (you know, like that last Die Hard movie).
This one’s not a waste of time, even though it can’t compare to the original. You ‘ll have to track that series down on DVD or here’s hoping that someone at Netflix or Amazon Prime who crawls the web figures out that the should license streaming rights for the U.S. In the meantime. check out this documentary about the original show to get an idea of why it’s such a big deal for the Brits.