Bash first, ask questions later is the default setting for the elite police unit in “The Sweeney,” a defiantly anachronistic actioner named after the copshow that topped British TV ratings in the 1970s. Belatedly rebooting a spinoff film franchise that yielded two local hits (“Sweeney!” and “Sweeney 2”), Nick Love’s sixth feature trades on nostalgia for the series’ macho antics, while hoping to snag younger patrons through the casting of music star Ben Drew. Local target auds should submit to the pic’s time-honored catchphrase, “You’re nicked!,” but Universal and other offshore distribs may face resistance to arrest.
Jack Regan (Ray Winstone) is a plainclothes detective with London’s Flying Squad, which in Cockney rhyming slang becomes the Sweeney (“Sweeney Todd”/”flying squad”). Dispatched with haste to stop violent robberies in progress, Regan and his team are cops who get the job done but don’t play by the rules. Their aggressive tactics pose bureaucratic headaches for the division’s long-suffering boss, Frank Haskins (Damian Lewis), and provoke outright hostility from persnickety internal-affairs chump Ivan Lewis (Steven Mackintosh). It doesn’t help that Regan is having an affair with pretty Flying Squad member Nancy (Hayley Atwell), who also happens to be Lewis’ wife.
Helmer Love, no stranger to stories rooted in the aggressive rituals of male bonding (“The Football Factory,” “The Business”), has a strong feel for this kind of material. Following the contours of the original TV show, Regan’s younger partner, George Carter (Drew, also known as Plan B), is presented as a former bad boy who cleaned up and joined the force through Regan’s avuncular intervention. Other team members are lightly sketched, including the implausibly glamorous Nancy, a curious casting fit for Atwell (further broadening her range following her turn in “Captain America: The First Avenger”).
The storyline involves the robbery of a relatively humble jewelry store, which ends in the murder of a witness. Love allows the audience to be too far ahead of the Flying Squad detectives, who initially fail to grasp the significance of the summary execution caught on the store’s TV monitor. Flawed assumptions and the team’s reliably confrontational policing methods land Regan in hot water, giving Lewis the upper hand in the internal power struggle.
Much of the action is routine, although the central setpiece, chasing masked criminals through London’s Trafalgar Square and National Gallery, is a praiseworthy highlight. A car chase-heavy climax should resonate with fans of the original show, but Regan’s brief incarceration, while allowing a witty allusion to a memorable moment from Winstone’s 1977 breakthrough vehicle, “Scum,” seems untethered to plausible reality and legal process.
The film was long in development, with original producers Andrew MacDonald and Allon Reich, at a time when their company DNA was tasked with developing U.K.-based hits for Fox Searchlight (past pics include Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine”). The project hit casting and budgetary speed bumps, but credited screenwriters Love and John Hodge (“Trainspotting”) may also have struggled with the central conundrum: In a drama made today, how do you credibly present the kind of muscular policing that’s intrinsic to the source material?
While TV’s “Life on Mars” celebrated the disparity by magically marooning a modern-day detective in 1973, Hodge and Love can only hope for the best by offering oral tributes to Regan along the lines of, “The world’s running out of men like you, Jack.” Nevertheless, auds may struggle to develop a rooting interest in this violent dinosaur, especially when Regan is shown filching valuables at a crime scene to pass on to an informant. More tricky still, the pic arrives in the U.K. in the wake of public concern over the case of newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson, who died of internal bleeding after being struck with a police baton.
Tech credits are decent, especially given a production budget reportedly around $5 million.