Even the most Anglophilic American may not know “The Sweeney” is slang for London’s Flying Squad, the fearsome police branch that busts violent crime. Fewer still may not know about “The Sweeney,” the popular ‘70s British TV show about same. Someone going cold into the show’s splashy new film adaptation — two direct spinoffs were made back in the day, including one called simply “Sweeney!” — could be forgiven for not being sure, in the opening sequence, whether the lead characters are goodies or baddies. As they bust up a heist-in-progress, wielding baseball bats and big, scary guns, they’re as ruthless and violent as their prey, if not as precise. When they flash badges, it’s not a relief.
Ray Winstone, at his growliest, plays the leader of this iteration of the Sweeney, leading his gender-blind crew as they thwart larceny with the kind of ruthless inefficiency seen in cartoonish movies like “The Sweeney.” There’s a rote conspiracy plot to make it not feel like a glorified TV show: a spate of robberies look to be orchestrated by the same villains, who are so good at being evil they actually expose the recklessness of Winstone and his unit’s methods.
But where do the makers of “The Sweeney” stand? Are Winstone & co. a lawless posse of brutish thugs, abusing their power to get results (or putting civilians and even themselves in harm’s way when they fail miserably)? Or are they awesome badass heroes? Despite the odd complication — including one genuine surprise death — writer-director Nick Love goes with the latter, standing in awe of his questionable anti-heroes. Aging Winstone is a snarling tells-it-like-it-is blowhard who’s shtupping the team hottie (Hayley Atwell), because of course he is, while telling off the killjoy (Steven Mackintosh) who periodically tsk-tks them over cleaning up their act by obeying the law and avoiding untold collateral damage.
“The Sweeney” is far from the first actioner to stump for the awesomeness of fascism, or at least fascist tendencies — “Gangster Squad” did that just in January — and at least there’s acknowledgement that such thoughtless actions can have tragic consequences. Then again, after his actions do wreak tragic consequences Winstone’s solution is to double down. The odd decent action set piece is appreciated — even if its best is a cold copy of the centerpiece in “Heat" — but such moments are best enjoyed as bits removed from the fairly noxious whole. [2 out of 5 Globes]