Wrath of Man is more Jason Statham than Guy Ritchie
The respective rises to prominence of Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham are so indissociable that it seems inconceivable that it’s been a staggering 16 years since they’ve last worked together (on the inscrutable Revolver, possibly Ritchie’s worst — though the same cannot be said for Statham). Both Statham and Ritchie have become associated with a certain type of “grown-up” action movie, where hyper-verbose and hyper-profane “lads” in impeccably tailored suits bash the shit out of each other, but the fact is that both have done plenty of other types of work in the interim. Ritchie’s last film, the too-clever-by-half crime opus The Gentlemen, suggested that Ritchie was getting back to his roots after a decade doing huge studio tentpoles, but his latest film feels infinitely closer to a heightened Statham vehicle than anything else.
Statham remains one of the planet’s most visible action stars even if, more often than not, the films he appears in that are obvious vehicles for his talents stay much less visible than the ones in which he appears as an ensemble player (the Furious franchise, The Expendables franchise, his great comedic supporting turn in Spy). The average Jason Statham film is extremely self-serious and somewhat more high-minded than your average DTV action sausage-factory product. He’s appeared in adaptations of hard-boiled novelists like Ken Bruen and Donald Westlake and generally steered away from bash-’em actioners, even if a lot of the movies he did appear in shared a generally sullen and apathetic worldview.
Wrath of Man is much more along those lines than it is a witty, one-liner-filled gangster comedy in early Ritchie fashion. A convoluted crime thriller with relatively few action scenes, Wrath of Man begins promisingly before buckling under the weight of its own pretensions and Ritchie’s tendencies to make things overly complicated for himself.
Statham is H, a man who is hired as an armored truck driver for a company that employs almost exclusively macho dick-swingers and sullen alphas. When his superior (Holt McCallany) tests H, he finds only slightly-above-average driving skills — but when an operation goes haywire, H proves to not only be stable and cold-blooded but one hell of a shot, taking out six robbers without so much as breaking a sweat. What no one knows is H isn’t just some working stiff looking for a high-paid, high-risk job; he’s actually out to avenge the death of his son, who was shot down as an innocent bystander during a cash truck robbery. H’s plan (and it actually gets pretty complex as Ritchie starts to Rashomon his way around what should be a pretty straightforward thriller) is to surprise the robbers on their next job and avenge his son.
What could have been a pretty interesting pared-down ’70s-style thriller soon makes way for a convoluted crime epic as Ritchie starts to double down on the flashbacks as the film also outlines the involvement of the criminal gang that took down the truck (led by Jeffrey Donovan and Scott Eastwood) and H’s own shady past and how all of it intermingles and eventually leads to the death of an innocent teenager. You may recall that something similar happened with The Gentlemen, which constantly veered off into additional tangents that fed into each other to the point of near-unintelligibility, but that film could at least lean on a cheeky po-mo approach to the material. Wrath of Man is significantly less satisfied but instead oppressively dour and airless. Like many of Statham’s less successful prestige projects, it has a high-minded approach to pulp that works in fits and starts but never quite coalesces.
It doesn’t help that this is one of the dourest and least personable performances Statham has ever given. He rivals only ’80s-era Bronson when it comes to a stone-faced absence of actual sorrow being telegraphed to the audience through everything but his performance. Granted, it’s not absolutely necessary for an action movie protagonist to have tangible emotion in order to be compelling, but the stakes simply do not feel like they matter as much as the film suggests. It does help a little that Ritchie has surrounded Statham (who is definitely capable of a more lived-in performance) with a murderers’ row of character actors who do more to flesh out their underwritten characters than anything Statham is given.
Like I said, there’s a pretty good Robert Mitchum programmer hidden somewhere in Wrath of Man, but the final product is so convoluted it actively works against the muscular pleasures of a down-the-middle crime/heist movie. Wrath of Man is fairly entertaining within the boundaries it sets for itself, but it also takes on a sort of unearned grandiloquence that it doesn’t quite know what to do with. Of all possible films, it reminds me of Den of Thieves, the overbaked Gerard Butler-starring crime film that has gained a rather sizeable cult reputation since its release a few years ago. Den of Thieves is a more savory dish than Wrath of Man; more textured but significantly stupider, it wears the moniker of “poor man’s Heat” with more panache. Nevertheless, one can’t accuse Ritchie of doing the thing he always does here. ■
Wrath of Man opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, May 7. Watch the trailer here:
Wrath of Man by Guy Ritchie, starring Jason Statham
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