- James McAvoy in Welcome to the Punch
By coincidence two British thrillers starring James McAvoy, Trance
and Welcome to the Punch
, are playing in Chicago this week. They're both pulpy, far-fetched crime stories marked by shifting allegiances between characters and elaborate action sequences. They're also highly stylish movies, displaying near-constant visual invention that allows one to forget (or better enjoy) the preposterousness of the narratives. I prefer Welcome to the Punch
, though I could understand why someone might like Trance
better. The latter film, directed by Danny Boyle in the anything-for-a-kick mode of his Trainspotting
and A Life Less Ordinary
, features a greater number of plot twists, a wider range of cinematic devices, and Rosario Dawson naked. Yet Punch
strikes me as the more fully realized work; director Eran Creevy displays greater care in his stylistic choices and develops them into a recognizable perspective.
In my short review of the film I wrote that "Creevy bases his sophisticated mise-en-scene on the [main] characters' parallel natures, creating an exciting sense of forward movement while cutting between different points of view." Like the Hong Kong action films it lovingly evokes, Punch feels like a descendant of American musicals rather than American crime films. It's lightweight in terms of plotting and characterization, yet Creevy orchestrates such formal properties as color, framing, and camera movement into a complex and memorable movie environment. Dave Kehr once wrote that the films of Douglas Sirk demand that the spectator "reads the image," and I'd say the same thing of Welcome to the Punch. Creevy streamlines the differences between lawmen and law-breakers—and between action and stasis—so that each shot seems like part of a great, smooth-running toy.
- McAvoy (with Rosario Dawson's reflection) in Trance
Boyle, on the other hand, tries to squeeze the entire toy shop into Trance
. The movie contains dream sequences, flashbacks, hallucinations, melodramatic romance, slapstick, brutal violence, conversations about art history and psychology, and Rosario Dawson naked. Any of these things could be satisfying on its own, but thrown together indiscriminately they cancel each other out. In all of his films, Boyle seems worried to the point of neurosis about keeping the spectator entertained. (I remember Ignatiy Vishnevetsky complaining of 127 Hours
, "James Franco gives a fine performance here, but there's just so much stuff
around it.") This neurosis feels especially pronounced in Trance
, since there's little thematic weight to counter the rabid showmanship. When the film introduces serious ideas about how people compensate for painful memories (most of which feel borrowed from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
), they don't seem to grow naturally out of the material; they feel like more ingredients in a too-thick stew.