By Thomas Puhr.
If you’re willing to surrender to the testosterone-saturated, borderline fascistic dialogue – at times, the characters’ locker room banter sounds like it’s taken from a subpar John Milius script, or an unironic Paul Verhoeven film – there’s some pleasure to be had.”
With his latest genre exercise, Wrath of Man (2021), Guy Ritchie gives fans two movies for the price of one: a heist thriller and a popcorn revenge fantasy. As the former, it’s lean and dynamic, even ambitious. As the latter, it’s a dated, tone-deaf mess. I can’t recommend the film as a whole, though certain scenes – in isolation – are well done. The best line of attack may be to wait until it comes to streaming so you can skip the first hour.
Jason Statham is H, the newest tough guy to start working for Fortico, an armored-truck company that gets robbed so often you’d think that’s their specialty. After a quick training montage with his new partner, Bullet (Holt McCallany, whom devotees of David Fincher’s canceled Mindhunter will happily recognize), H is on the beat, transporting millions of government dollars across an unnamed Los Angeles. Fans of ‘80s Seagal and Stallone vehicles will get a kick out of Statham’s deadpan delivery – usually before killing some nameless gunman with cartoonish efficiency – of gems like, “Worry about putting your asshole back in your asshole, and leave it to me.”
Bottom line: If you’re willing to surrender to the testosterone-saturated, borderline fascistic dialogue – at times, the characters’ locker room banter sounds like it’s taken from a subpar John Milius script, or an unironic Paul Verhoeven film – there’s some pleasure to be had. In a genuinely baffling cameo, Post Malone pops up as a criminal who makes the mistake of trying to rob H and Bullet’s truck. “Suck my fucking dick!” he shouts. Statham’s retort? “Suck your own dick.” Touché, H!
These early scenes are fun in a brainless throwback sort of way, but Wrath of Man twists itself into a narrative pretzel when – half an hour in – we’re subjected to a lengthy flashback explaining H’s mysterious background. Get this: It turns out he’s not who he says he is. To make matters worse, these scenes are followed by another flashback, this time from the perspective of the criminal masterminds – led by Jan (Scott Eastwood), who really knows how to stylishly don a pair of sunglasses before stepping into a tinted car – behind a number of the violent heists plaguing Fortico. It doesn’t help that these nested flashbacks are accompanied by arbitrary timestamps (“5 Months Later,” “3 Weeks Later”) and self-serious chapter titles (“A Dark Spirit,” “Scorched Earth”).
None of the narrative gymnastics serve any higher purpose than to mislead viewers and muddy what is ultimately a simple story.”
Although it eventually becomes clear that we’re following different storylines as they converge on the same set piece – a highway shootout, which is first glimpsed in the opening scene – none of these narrative gymnastics serve any higher purpose than to mislead viewers and muddy what is ultimately a simple story: H has gone undercover at Fortico in order to find out which employee is an inside man for said criminal masterminds. That’s about it. Rashomon (1950) this is not, and what we get are essentially three bloated expositions, back-to-back-to-back.
But then there’s that climactic heist, which almost makes the preceding hour worth it. The extended sequence involves an audacious robbery not of one, but of all the armored trucks, after they’ve returned to the depot on Black Friday. Just as Tarantino didn’t want to film a car chase but the car chase for Death Proof (2007), Ritchie seems intent on giving us the ultimate heist. Naturally, he doesn’t come close – the likes of Rififi (1955) and Heat (1995) remain the crown jewels – but he does give it an admirable shot. By juxtaposing the robbers’ stoic, meticulous walk-through of the plan with its messy execution – in near real-time – on the big day, Ritchie exhibits two unexpected qualities: patience and restraint. It’s the best half hour he’s made in some time.
Such highlights make the surrounding scenes all the more disappointing. And it’s not like the potential is lacking. Indeed, Ritchie has assembled an impressive supporting cast. McCallany elicits some pathos as the level-headed everyman (he’s at least as “everyman” as someone nicknamed Bullet can be), but others – like Andy Garcia, Josh Hartnett, and Babs Olusanmokun – are squandered entirely, disappearing from the proceedings for swaths of time.
As the headliner, Statham is given the most to do and least to say. To an extent, this is for the best (Ritchie knows his collaborator’s strengths and limitations as an actor), and Statham fulfills his badass role with customary charm and swagger. I can’t help but wonder, though, what kind of film may have emerged if put in the hands of a more nuanced actor. Imagine Olusanmokun – who was so, so good in Refn’s Too Old to Die Young (2019) – as H. Now that’s an actioner I can get behind wholeheartedly, clunky dialogue be damned.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.