Anchor Bay // 1978 // 205 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // May 9th, 2003
Britain's toughest cops in their action-packed movie debut and their second blast of double-barreled big-screen action!
Based on the successful British television show of hard drinking, rules breaking, super cops, the theatrical spin-off Sweeney! and its bloodier sequel Sweeney 2 are a breath of gritty nostalgia. The fine folks at Anchor Bay put these peas in a pod together as a bare-bones double feature.
Detective Inspector Regan (John Thaw) and his trusty assistant, Detective Sergeant Carter (Dennis Waterman), are torn from their usual lifestyle of drinking and full-body socializing when a high class prostitute has the bad luck to be killed. Pursuing the case with a disregard for charm and subtlety, Regan unearths a deadly conspiracy to manipulate world oil prices with murder and blackmail. However, Regan is soon framed for driving drunk (more than usual, anyway) and suspended from the force by the sly machinations of his price manipulating nemesis, Elliott McQueen (Barry Foster).
If you think a little matter like jail time and professional disgrace will stop Regan from blowing the lid off an international conspiracy and putting the handcuffs on his man, then you don't know John Regan (or the conventions of the genre)!
Just before being nicked for corruption charges, Flying Squad chief Jupp (Denholm Elliott) hands Detective Inspector Regan (John Thaw) one last case. It seems that there is a crew of particularly nasty bank robbers popping in and out of London banks with mysterious regularity. Led by Francis Hill (Ken Hutchison), they steal oddly precise amounts of loot and are not shy about killing inconvenient people, including their own wounded!
Curious and curiouser when Regan tracks the gang to Malta, and finds the gang living the life of Reilly on a palatial estate, complete with wives, children, and the benevolent protection of greased palms. A perfect set-up for a bloody showdown in London, wouldn't you say?
If you can't get your fill of rough-hewn coppers, horribly dated clothes and seedy '70s London, then this is the show for you! Well, that's actually quite a relief. I was having nightmares in dreadful anticipation of seeing Sweeney Todd! This Sweeney! and Sweeney 2 set is not about a murderous barber and his Soylent Green pie-making cohort, but a roving unit of relentless, incorruptible policemen (the Scotland Yard "Flying Squad") whose focused pursuit of the lawless is sometimes as dangerous to themselves as their prey.
The flavor of Sweeney! and Sweeney 2 is very much in the vein of The French Connection, as if Popeye Doyle's twin grew up in London. The crooks in Sweeney! aren't nearly as intelligent, but their ham-handed antics still entertain if your suspension of disbelief is intact. (Given the plot of Sweeney!, you might be forgiven if you wondered whether it ought to be called The American Connection.) Since its American cousin was released in 1971, I would be quite surprised if The French Connection did not inspire in some fashion Sweeney series creator/writer Ian Kennedy Martin (Baretta). If you like/hate one, you will probably like/hate its trans-Atlantic counterpart.
Though a comparatively short 97 minutes, Sweeney! drags at times, primarily when the focus shifts from the action and Regan's bull in a china shop antics to the less than compelling aspects of the plot. After all, making a bland yet complicated plot of political blackmail and world oil cartels seem exciting is not a simple task. Director David Wickes seems overly enamored with unusual camera angles and techniques at the expense of clarity, as if Sweeney! is an in-joke with his cinematic pals. Finally, if you have high standards for special effects, don't look too closely when the action gets bloody -- the results seem more like actors with cheap fake blood than convincing casualties. Overall, Sweeney! is a decent film, if a bit slow and ponderous.
On the other hand, Sweeney 2 is more in tune with the blood and guts ethos of the Flying Squad. At one point Regan mutters that he's never seen so many dead people. What, didn't he ever see a Clint Eastwood movie? Director Tom Clegg (Space: 1999, the Sharpe series) discards the cute camera tricks of the first film for a serious, straightforward style suited to the story. The result is an improved, solid police movie, with a first-rate set-up and slow build-up to the inexorable bloody final confrontation,
The problem is that Sweeney 2 has trouble deciding if it is a movie about the Flying Squad, a movie focusing in on the bank robbery crew and their motives, or an extended television movie. Though the focus starts with D.I. Regan and Company, the frequent interludes with the robbers' tranquil domestic lives and their "professional" activities tease you with the promise of insight. Yet, for all the attention, you never get any look into the robbers aside from frustratingly indirect exposition and a jarring dash of darkly pessimistic politics at the very end. Possible dramatic blockbusters are mishandled, such as an inquiry into the death of a bystander due to Detective Sergeant Hamilton's actions that is raised but not followed up on, or the corruption of Regan's former boss, which comes across with all the drama of a Yorkshire pudding.
The script of Sweeney 2 has another annoying moment with a mid-film hotel bomb scare scene. While the picture of hordes of police officers swilling down free booze at the hotel bar while beleaguered Detective Sergeant Hamilton saves the day is delightful, this scene has zed to do with the film. It does do a wonderful job of stopping Sweeney 2, stomping over the flow of the story, and padding the running time. If this were a modern mile-a-minute thriller, than a brief breath-catching film might be well taken, but not in a deliberately paced film.
John Thaw (Inspector Morse, Kavanagh QC) is the heart and soul of Sweeney! and Sweeney 2. A masterfully subtle actor, John Thaw carries the world-weary, rules-hating, criminal despising ethos of Detective Inspector Regan with dignity and menace. As good as Thaw is, I'm afraid he is less convincing as the servant of Bacchus the writers want him to be, though he soldiers on as best he can. Thaw's Jeff Daniels look-alike sidekick, Dennis Waterman (Minder) keeps up with his lead, though he adds a quality of ironic humor absent from the more straightforward Thaw.
Guest starring in Sweeney 2 are some fine character actors, including Ken Hutchison (Straw Dogs), Denholm Elliott (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Trading Places), and the ever compelling Nigel Hawthorne (Yes, Minister, Firefox, The Madness of King George). Sadly, while Elliott has a nice turn as the "bent" former leader of the Flying Squad, Hawthorne barely has the time to be noticed. Hutchison, on the other hand, has plenty of real estate on screen, but fails to give Francis Hill much texture aside from his evil skin.
The anamorphic video for Sweeney! and Sweeney 2 is about average for a films of the era. Light sprinkles of dirt and assorted defects and digital artifacting, muted colors, and a moderate softness of picture are noticeable, but tolerable. Nothing great, nothing horrible. Though less than thrilling in sonic quality and without significant directional effects, the basic Dolby Digital audio gets the job done. Take care in adjusting your sound level, as some moments of loud action may blast you out of your seat if you boosted the volume to hear the preceding far quieter scenes.
For those of us on the colonial side of the Atlantic, some background on the successful Sweeney series would have been appreciated. There's a nice chunk of U.K. television history behind Sweeney, so why not recycle it into some extra content aside from the usual lame trailers? Perhaps the principals could be reassembled for Sweeney 3: Who Killed the Extras?. Then again, since Anchor Bay can't be bothered to include even subtitles, a lack of extras is not too surprising.
Sweeney!, whether intentionally or not, seems to borrow from another film in the early 1970s, namely Hitchcock's dark, homicidal Frenzy. Shared between the films is the late actor Barry Foster, and therein lies a bit of a problem: he seems to be the same person in both films. He looks roughly the same, carries himself with similar false friendship, and oozes the same evil charm. Okay, in Sweeney! he sports a dubious American accent, but having seen both films, I found the sameness to be most distracting, and that's a negative on Foster's acting ledger. A shame, really, because Foster seems to have the talent for much more.
For Anglophiles, fans of The French Connection, and lovers of a good gritty police drama, a look at Sweeney! and Sweeney 2 (list $25) is worth your time, but consider a purchase with caution. These are films, much like the clothing fashion of the 70s on display in them, which may not bear up well on repeated viewings.
Sweeney! and Sweeney 2 are let off with a caution, but Anchor Bay found guilty of an excessively bare bones release (which lacks even subtitles!). Court is adjourned!
Review content copyright © 2003 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 205 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailers
* IMDb: Sweeney!
* IMDb: Sweeney 2
* Series Summary