With Wrath of Man, Jason Statham reunites with the British filmmaker who launched his career: Guy Ritchie, who directed Statham in the highly-stylized crime capers Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000). Since their last foray together with Revolver (2005), Statham has gone on to become an action star and part of the Fast and the Furious franchise, while Ritchie made a couple of Sherlock Holmes films and a few other sub-par hyper-violent gangster films, as well as the underrated The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. But while Lock and Snatch felt fresh and charismatic (albeit drawing from the same well as Tarantino, Soderbergh, Boyle, etc.), Wrath of Man feels grimly tired. Even as Ritchie’s elliptical storytelling and energized editing/cinematography provide a steady sense of tension, Wrath of Man ultimately offers us nothing really new either in terms of form or content. It’s a violent vengeance tale, plan and simple, one where none of the main characters are especially sympathetic (and the few that are are brutally and unjustly dispatched).
Wrath of Man opens with a heist on an armored cash truck (borrowing heavily from Mann’s Heat), then centers on the mysterious H (Statham), a newly-hired security guard for the cash truck company. An aloof H reports to the affable Bullet (Holt McCallany) and is partnered with the cocky/insecure Boy Sweat Dave (Josh Hartnett). When a robbery conducted by small-time crooks (led by a weirdly-cast Post Malone) is effectively (and violently) thwarted by H, it elicits praise for his brave (i.e., killer) tactics, but raises suspicions about his background and motives. Those motives are spelled out in gruesome detail during the overlong second act. We’re also shown the robbers’ perspective of the opening heist, and why H’s mission for vengeance will lead to an inevitably violent and unsatisfying conclusion.
The problem here is that Guy Ritchie’s signature is to imbue his gangster stories with a sense of lighthearted wit and a dash of mystery. In short, they’re cool. Even if we’re wondering how a Ritchie film will tie up all of its loose ends, we know we’re going to have some fun as we get there. But Statham’s H is nearly silent in Wrath of Man; when he does speak, it’s mostly cliche threats spoken through gritted teeth right before he shoots someone. The attempts at humor feel exactly like that: attempts. The various supporting cast are competent with what they’re given; Harnett is offered little to do besides whine or whimper, while McCallany does imbue his generic character with a small sense of gravitas. But even when the action ramps up in the final act, it’s not enough to make any of it truly thrilling, and the “twists” in the story don’t actually make the conclusion more meaningful or satisfying. Wrath of Man is decidedly, even purposefully, Not Fun.
To be fair in my critique, I must admit that revenge thrillers perpetuating the myth of redemptive violence are generally not my cup of tea. The repetition of depicting René Girard’s mimetic cycle of desire and violence can only be done so many times before it becomes dreary or overwrought. The trope of “Angry Dude with a Certain Set of Skills” seeking revenge on Those Who Took Away Everything Dear often generates lazy or hackneyed writing and performances. Actors grimace and glower, punching or shooting their way through droves of anonymous baddies until they can mete out their personal justice, can finally Make Them Pay For What They’ve Done. For a certain audience, this may be satisfying; to echo Gladiator‘s Maximus, are we not entertained? But should such bloodthirsty vengeance be entertaining? Of course, the cinematic revenge story can become reinvigorated or reimagined by adding moral/philosophical complexity in audiences’ complicity with violence (Inglourious Basterds), presenting compelling sympathetic characters (Promising Young Woman), or using innovative and/or over-the-top aesthetics and structures (Memento, the John Wick films). Unfortunately, Wrath of Man offers nothing really new to this well-worn tale, and the few surprises are essentially amoral or nihilistic, meaning they involve quasi-sympathetic secondary characters who attempt to do the right thing getting shot in the face. By the conclusion, Jason Statham’s H remains as taciturn and detached as we first saw him, giving us little-to-no emotional anchor to make us care about what happens to him, or any of the other characters for that matter. And that’s disappointing, because he and Guy Ritchie both have the capacity to make compelling cinematic art/entertainment. For all of its promise in the reunion of Ritchie and Statham, Wrath of Man is ultimately soulless.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt11083552/