Jack Regan (Thaw) was a perennially grouchy, heavy-drinking, chain-smoking Detective Inspector not above bending the rules and ignoring direct orders from his superiors to bring down the bad guys. ("You're nicked" became as famous a catch-phrase in Britain as "Book ‘em, Danno" in the U.S.) His (Detective) Sergeant, George Carter (Waterman), is a south Londoner, streetwise but less cynical and more innocent than his partner. Their boss, Chief Inspector Haskins (Morgan) often acts as a buffer between hothead Regan and Haskins's less tolerant superiors.
So popular was the series that two theatrical features were made, a practice common in Britain throughout the 1970s. (Other movie adaptations of popular TV shows include films based on Are You Being Served?, Monty Python's Flying Circus, Bless This House, Steptoe and Son and many others.) These were typically made for domestic consumption only, with little if any theatrical release outside Britain. Sweeney! is good enough that, had the filmmakers been just a little more ambitious and careful, might have resulted in an internationally successful film franchise.
The pilot TV film, Regan (1974) and the first season of The Sweeney are available on Blu-ray in the U.K. Though filmed in 16mm, the transfers are outstanding and well worth purchasing. Subsequent series are, currently, available only on DVD, but they're great, too, and the complete series DVD set includes an exhaustive book the size of the Yellow Pages.
Minor villain Ronnie Brent (Joe Melia) asks DI Jack Regan to investigate the death of his girlfriend, prostitute Janice Wyatt (Lynda Bellingham), after the inquest rules her drug overdose an accident and/or suicide. Brent is convinced she was murdered. And, indeed, she was, as the opening scenes show well-dressed men luring her up to a hotel suite and murdering her, to use as leverage against Charles Baker (Ian Bannen), a high-ranking Member of Parliament meeting with OPEC members about the price of crude oil in Britain. Baker's press secretary, American Elliott McQueen (Barry Foster) seems anxious to cover up the crime and avoid a national scandal, but it's soon clear he's in on the plot, instructing Janice's smiling killers (including Johnson, played by Michael Coles) to "take care" of Brent and Regan when the latter unofficially begins snooping around.
The Sweeney, with its brutality and frank talk of sex (including fleeting nudity) was far beyond what American network television would have allowed in the late-1970s, and Sweeney!, the movie, goes several steps further. Producer Ted Childs and screenwriter Ranald Graham, both veterans of the TV show, strike just the right balance, maintaining the look and spirit of the TV series while amping up both the stakes story-wise and the realism of the violence. The budget, while not much higher than two episodes of the series, is more than adequate. It plays very much like it's picking up where The Sweeney's third season left off.
It's too bad, however, the filmmakers didn't aim just a bit higher. Barry Foster, the serial killer in Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972) affects an unconvincing American accent, which is distracting. For a little bit more money, the filmmakers could have hired an American name actor - Anthony Perkins comes to mind - that could have added to the verisimilitude while making Sweeney! more marketable abroad. Fans of the series also missed Garfield Morgan, whose staid, cool demeanor helped balance the frequently out-of-control Regan. Morgan declined to appear in Sweeney! because his role was deemphasized to the point of being little more than a cameo. A bit of rewriting might have satisfied the actor. (Morgan is also absent for most of The Sweeney's fourth and final season, a loss keenly-felt.)
Finally, Denis King's score is rather bland, generic cop/action-thriller music, ‘70s style. Jazz pianist Harry South wrote the iconic theme music for the TV series, whose opening and end titles had distinctive graphics. Even the act breaks were memorable. It's a pity those weren't adapted for the movie version, either.
Minor complains aside, Sweeney! is, overall, very good, with an intelligent, cynical screenplay and fine performances all around. (Spoilers) In having American McQueen controlling and shaping Britain's oil crisis policies, worth billions of dollars, secretly on behalf of OPEC (and, presumably, American interests), with hapless Regan caught up in the intrigue, dramatizes the U.K.'s eroding influence in world finances while simultaneously exposing the limits to the power and authority of various characters (Regan, Baker, and, ultimately, McQueen) against unseen power brokers at the top of the food chain.
John Thaw and Dennis Waterman were two of the biggest TV stars of that era and beyond. Thaw, of course, is best-known to American audiences as Inspector Morse, a role he played so memorably from 1987 to 2000. Former child actor Waterman is probably most famous in Britain for the comedy-drama series Minder, on which he co-starred with George Cole from 1979-1989, though many other programs, including The Sweeney before that and New Tricks (2003-2015) after are almost equally memorable. He retired soon after but returned to the screen for Never Too Late (2020), a new release.
Sweeney 2 is in some respects even closer to the spirit of the TV series but its splintered story is less compelling and less believable. It concerns a gang of particularly violent "blaggers" (bank robbers) committing payroll robberies. They assassinate wounded members of the gang but, curiously, steal precisely 60,000 British pounds each time, leaving excess loot behind. Early on it's revealed they hightail back to Malta following each raid, where they live commune-style on a paradisiacal estate in the desert with their girlfriends and children.
This second feature plays more like the TV show partly because of its long digressions into various subplots, making Sweeney 2 play, at times, like several episodes strung together. One concerns the defusing of a bomb at a high-rise London hotel. Carter is ordered up to the room to help defuse it, while dozens of officers gather in the hotel bar, drinking and carousing, an amusing vignette, even though it stops the main story in its tracks. This and lots more black humor distinguish it from the darker, almost humorless Sweeney!, and there's a better sense of Regan's team working together, the camaraderie among them relaxed and entertaining to watch. Another storyline involves Regan's relationship with his bent senior officer, former Det. Chief Sup. Jupp (Denholm Elliott, Garfield Morgan again absent), serving time on a corruption conviction sealed after Regan refused to testify on his behalf.
What the picture loses in terms of not having a strong central story is compensated somewhat by the more time it spends on characterization, particularly the two leads. Released after the fourth and final season, Sweeney 2 was the last audiences would ever see of Regan and Carter, at least as played by Thaw and Waterman, and as such it's not a bad capper.
Although Sweeney 2 was rated AA in the U.K. (restricted to audiences 14 years and up) compared to Sweeney!'s X (adults only), the level of violence, nudity, and profanity is virtually identical.
Video & Audio
Licensed from Studio Canal, Sweeney! is presented in its original 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio, while Sweeney 2 has been slightly reformatted to 1.78:1. Each has somewhat grainy title elements (particularly Sweeney!) but the rest of both films look great, with excellent resolution and decent color. Both movies are on a single disc, though given their running times (97 and 108 minutes, respectively), this isn't too much an issue bit-rate wise. The audio, DTS-HD Master Audio mono, is similarly good, and supported by optional English subtitles, good for catching all the slang and police jargon. Region "A" encoded.
Supplements include audio commentaries on both titles by writer Simon Abrams. At nearly three-and-a-half hours of content to fill Abrams often wanders pretty far off the trail. Andrew Pixley wrote the exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) booklet for the UK DVD set and I found myself wishing he'd been involved with this release, but it's okay for what it is. A good trailer for Sweeney! is also included.
Though probably best enjoyed when integrated while viewing the original TV series, Sweeney! and Sweeney 2 hold up well all by themselves, and one hopes this release will introduce the show and its characters to a new generation of fans. Highly Recommended.