The Sweeney almost single-handedly changed the grammar of television drama in the mid-seventies. Fuelled with a generous budget and produced by the film division of Thames Television, it was shot wholly on 16mm with a fierce realism and fast-paced cinematic scope. Never before had viewers experienced the rough-and-tumble world of organised crime with such brutal intensity.
The show made stars of John Thaw and Dennis Waterman and soon spawned two big screen adaptations, Sweeney! and Sweeney 2, which debut on Blu-ray this February in a brand new HD scan and restoration from Network Distributing.
Released in 1977 and 1978, the films follow Detective Inspector Jack Regan (John Thaw) and Detective Sergeant Carter (Dennis Waterman) through the gritty underworld of the Flying Squad — a crack group tasked with clamping down on armed robbery across Greater London. It’s an unforgiving life of violence, hard drinking and questionable morality…
First up is Sweeney! penned by Ranald Graham, who hands over a convoluted plot of high-level conspiracy. A leading politician attempts to fix the price of oil and a call girl is found dead in suspicious circumstances. Regan is convinced a bent press secretary is connected and the nearer he gets to the truth, the closer he comes to being silenced by a machine gun…
Whilst the movie draws on many of the staples of the original series, including some key cast members, Sweeney! feels a touch distant from its mother ship and lacks the dry humour which countered the show’s macho violence. The overall result is a slightly muddied, feature-length episode with a few thrilling sequences yet a mean-spirited tone. It’s as if the avenues of an X-rating derailed the production from the essence of the original buddy formula; drawing on a dependency for nudity, foul language and sexual violence with little sparkle or charm. Quite simply, there’s just not enough interaction between Regan and Carter to make this an even-handed Sweeney movie.
But there’s no shortage of stable performances with engaging leads from Thaw and Waterman. Unfortunately, they take up less than half of the running time with more focus placed on the (lesser interesting) guest cast. Barry Foster issues a dependable performance as a crooked American press secretary, albeit with a shaky transatlantic lilt. There’s also a rep of famous faces, including Brian Glover, Ian Bannen, Morris Perry and an early role for Linda Bellingham. That aside, Sweeney! is middle-ground fair.
Presumably Sweeney! was favoured by audiences at the time. The following year Sweeney 2 hit the screens in a caper which feels much closer to the original format, thanks to a focused script from series creators Ian Kennedy Martin & Troy Kennedy Martin.
A series of brutal bank robberies lead Regan and Carter to Malta. They uncover a commune funded by a gang set to make another heist to clear their debts. Facing off gold-plated shotguns, the Flying Squad battle a syndicate happy to take out anyone — including each other — to save their continental paradise…
Sweeney 2 is the best of the two movies and a fine film in its own right. A brilliantly crafted collection of action set pieces punctuates sparkling, fierce dialogue between Waterman and Thaw, whose dynamic is now brought up close and centre.
Series director Tom Clegg secures some impressive visuals, cross-cutting between London and Malta to furnish the movie with an expansive scope. Action is expertly executed with a number of car chases and rapidly-edited shoot-outs which still stand up today. A particularly well-paced sequence of a robbery with a kid on a skateboard offers all of the cinematic tension of a Hitchcock thriller.
Whilst the violence has been dialled down, the benefit of a robust narrative with real character development provides an ultimately greater impact for an explosive finale. The whole thing is also polished off with a haunting score from legendary composer Tony Hatch — transcending jazz with some bombastic, sleazy disco.
Extras for both releases include HD trailers, image galleries and PDFs of the original press packs — giving an intriguing insight into the marketing and PR for the movies at the time of release. Sweeney! is particularly well-devised as a mock red-top newspaper, complete with a composite sketch of Barry Foster.
The real value in these Blu-ray releases stems from a new master of the original film elements, elevated by a digital restoration which delivers a pin-sharp picture with balanced sound. Sweeney 2 looks particularly vibrant, feeling more like a movie shot today yet set in the decay and depression of the late seventies.
The Sweeney movies are rough, gruff urban westerns — unapologetically un-PC and brutally alpha male — providing a fascinating insight into the culture and attitudes of the period and profession. For fans of the genre, these are essential capers and well-made time capsules, which should be judged as such. Whilst Sweeney 2 is the stronger of the pair, both films capture the unpredictable brutality and charm which made the TV show such a success and these companion pieces deserve similar attention.
Cast: John Thaw, Dennis Waterman, Ian Bannen, Lynda Bellingham, Barry Foster, Diane Keen, Denholm Elliott Writer(s): Ranald Graham / Ian Kennedy Martin & Troy Kennedy Martin Certificate: 18 Duration: 94 mins / 104 mins Released by: Network Distributing Release date: 4 February 2019.