About halfway through Welcome To The Punch, a British action flick that up to that point functions as a pretty standard bullet-fest, somebody gets killed. That is by no means unusual—lots of people have already been killed by that point in the film, and have long since been forgotten. What makes this scene different is that the murder carries much less weight than the seemingly endless anticipation of the murder. It’d be a spoiler to name the actor in question, but that person does such a spectacular job of staring imminent death in the face, with the mixture of intense fear, disbelief, and sorrow that a real person in that situation would experience, that it threatens to stop the movie cold. And the movie never fully shrugs this singular moment off, such that it becomes something of a disquisition on mortality in spite of itself.
Initially, Welcome To The Punch looks more like a watered-down Hong Kong shoot-’em-up. Opening with a chase sequence that finds renegade cop James McAvoy being wounded, but mysteriously not killed, by vague criminal mastermind Mark Strong (it’s never made clear exactly what his line of work is; it’s just something illegal), Punch then jumps ahead three years to the moment when Strong’s adult son gets arrested after being shot during a deal gone wrong. When Strong shows up to break his kid out of the hospital, McAvoy and his partner, Andrea Riseborough, get embroiled in a conspiracy that may involve people far more nefarious, and much closer to them, than the oddly noble baddie they’re pursuing. Meanwhile, McAvoy and Strong engage in a decidedly Heat-like tango of mutual wary respect that suggests they’re more alike than either of them would care to admit. Then somebody dies, and everything goes to hell.
Writer-director Eran Creevy demonstrates little facility for kineticism—one of the movie’s best scenes gets flat-out ruined when he abruptly shifts to hackneyed slo-mo—and his cynical plot gets so convoluted that one of the bad guys has to break it down for the audience in a climactic monologue-at-gunpoint. Furthermore, Strong seriously outclasses McAvoy when it comes to gruff machismo, though they’re meant to be equals. But Welcome To The Punch keeps redeeming itself with a disarming respect for death in all its forms. One character credibly falls to pieces upon seeing the corpse of a loved one, in a way that’s considerably more wrenching than the story requires. Another, who’d previously functioned strictly as generic muscle, suddenly takes on enormous moral gravity when his beloved grandma (a welcome cameo by Mike Leigh regular Ruth Sheen) is taken hostage and openly threatened with execution. Action films that don’t treat casualties like faceless videogame avatars are rare; for all its clumsiness, this one occasionally draws blood.