(WRATH OF MAN premieres in limited theatres on May 21st.)
WRATH OF MAN is the kind of film Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham probably make in their sleep. It’s a deliberate, unassuming piece of retro-action that’s both reductive and progressive all at once. The kind of action film you’d see at rental stores in the 90s from production houses like Cannon Films or Orion — not necessarily bad, but workmanlike productions knowing exactly their target audience. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
Statham plays a man so forgettable the film brands him with only a letter for a name. He’s “H,” a sullen, gruff, and explosive mix of anger and professionalism. So, basically, it’s Statham playing himself. But let’s face it, nobody is here to see him flex his acting chops. H has lost his son in a robbery gone wrong, and he’s out for justice. Said robbery targeted armored cars, so Statham infiltrates the same courier company as a driver and waits to see if the bandits strike again.
Don’t fix what isn’t broken
Barring the utter silliness of the plot, it’s the kind of barebones setup that worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in the past. There’s almost nothing surrounding the setup, and director Ritchie keeps the momentum going at breakneck speed, for the most part, so you don’t notice. It’s only around the midway point the film begins to sag, veering off on an unnecessary tangent to explain how we got here.
Said over-explaining is a Ritchie staple, and it’s served him well in talky cockney shooters like SNATCH and his terrific SHERLOCK HOLMES adaptations. But in a lean and mean beast like WRATH, it feels superfluous. We know that Statham is angry; we don’t need to know the finer details because they’re unnecessary. Let the bull loose in the china shop and hit record.
The backstory is there to establish that while Statham is playing a criminal, he’s one of those “heart of gold” mobsters with a code of ethics. So, naturally, he’s a breed apart from his prey. But by the time we get around to introducing the villains, which happens far too late to matter, they too have understandable, if not wholly believable, motivations. There’s no more room for shades of grey at that point, which does dampen the final shootout some.
There’s even an indication that Ritchie might be moving on from his often over-produced visuals. Compared to the hyperactive SHERLOCK films, WRATH looks almost minimalist by his standards. The choice works, and there’s artistry in how Ritchie sticks to the 70s aesthetic to set the tone.
A solid cast
Ultimately, WRATH OF MAN isn’t interested in reinventing the wheel, and it’s a shame because Ritchie and his co-writers have accidentally stumbled on a far better film in the process. With just a little bit of re-writing, WRATH OF MAN could easily work as another sprawling Los Angeles crime epic in the style of HEAT. The elements are there, and at two hours, it already pushes the limits of its threadbare plotting.
But we get what we get, and it’s not a bad thing either. Instead, Ritchie infuses the film with his trademark archetypes, all manly men with thin skin and fragile egos, each trying to outdo one another at every turn. The always reliable Holt McCallany lends his easygoing charisma to Statham’s buddy and mentor, Bullet. Josh Hartnett continues his transition from a pretty leading boy to an interesting and fun character actor. The underrated Jeffrey Donovan gets little to do, but it’s a pleasure seeing him on the big screen nonetheless.
Nobody gets anything particularly fancy to do with their minimal parts. They’re here to provide credibility and to distract from the nonsense. For the most part, everyone succeeds.
At this point, you’re either onboard the Ritchie Express or not, and I get the feeling he doesn’t particularly care one way or the other. WRATH OF MAN is a testosterone-soaked festival of posturing with something to prove. It would be hilarious and sad at once if the cast weren’t so darn charismatic. Statham, now in the better part of his fifties, with a contractual obligation never to lose a fight, is particularly a curiosity.
Statham takes himself so seriously these days one has to wonder if he’s in on the joke or not. His early days with Ritchie proved him a surprisingly deft comedian, entirely at ease playing against his rough exterior as a down-and-out loser on the mean streets. But around the time he got the TRANSPORTER films under his belt, something changed, pushing Statham in the action headliner territory, and the spark disappeared from his eye.
In WRATH, he’s playing the caricature he’s built from himself, and there’s barely a glimpse of the interesting actor he can be. He’s so focused on being the toughest guy in the room that neither he nor Ritchie allows H any room to breathe or jest. It’s silly because it’s so artificial and comical. Surely Statham knows by now that his fanbase won’t disappear if he takes a hit or two now and then?
These complaints aside, WRATH OF MAN is an excellent action film made with talent and professionalism through and through. It won’t surprise you at any turn, but there’s a safety in that kind of predictability. Ritchie’s emphasis on showmanship reminds me of a solid gig of an oldie favorite you see still touring, even when you thought they retired. You’re kind of surprised they’re still around, even though it makes sense, and each time you get exactly what you want out of their show. No more, no less.