Wrath of Man

Wrath of Man ★★★

Perhaps the “least-Guy Ritchian” Guy Ritchie joint to date, Wrath of Man’s excellent concept ably deconstructs the revenge, heist, and gangster genres, aided by near perfect action choreography and an understated leading turn from Jason Statham, but is almost ruined by some horrendous-ass writing in spots from the film’s three screenwriters, especially regarding its stereotypical and one-note villains.

Guy Ritchie is a filmmaker who has done very little for me lately. Sure, I liked features like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch back in the day (along with everyone else), but ever since the turn of the century I have become increasingly uninterested in Ritchie’s filmography, much less generic Statham vehicles, for that matter. Recently I’ve been intrigued by a handful of positive Wrath of Man reviews on LB, so when strapped to a chair for five hours on a recent Delta flight and this flick appeared as an option on “Inflight Movies from Delta Studio,” I decided to throw caution to the wind and give this flick a try.

The main thing to know about Wrath is that it is pretty damn good when viewed as a straight-up action yarn, up until a very specific moment. Statham delivers the goods in both the Beating Blokes up Department as well as the Precision Killing Department and does a commendable job of inhabiting the relentless and fearsome loner known as “H,” (Statham) a man from the underworld who is bent on seeking revenge for a terrible act inflicted upon his family. All throughout the film’s first half I proclaimed to myself that this might be Ritchie’s best film. Meanwhile, I experienced the giddy feeling of a fun little flick metastasizing into a new guilty pleasure of mine in real time. To me, the flick is one of the most meta Ritche feature films to date and is occasionally quite funny, and is so enmeshed with its tropes that it often positions itself as practically a parody of the very genres it seeks to emulate.

That moment, the moment I mentioned earlier that nearly shattered the goodwill earned in the firth two-thirds of the film, is the introduction of the crew of bad guys responsible for a recent spate of armored vehicle heists that has terrorized the armored truck industry in City X, where this film takes place (the city itself is so goddamn bland I’m not sure where it takes place. LA?). The reason this moment is so jarring is because typically, a Ritchie crime film in its purest expression features memorable characters. They aren’t always deeply written, but at least they will utter witty rapid-fire dialogue, each carving a little corner in the story for them to call their own. For most of the movie, Ritchie really gets out of his own way, basically eschewing his typical directorial flourishes like freezeframes, onscreen captions, voiceovers, and other cute tricks, in exchange for a more conventional aesthetic approach to the material. Unfortunately, Ritchie also seems to have lost an ear for dialogue or a sensibility for character building, and that’s the case here with the bad guys, in a big way.

Ritchie does exert some of his characteristic directorial voice in the way in which he plays with the film’s temporal structure, splitting the movie into named chapters, each chapter with a slightly different narrative focus. Like Rashomon, (dare I compare?) Ritchie wields the narrative device of perspective to reveal key story-altering plot points as we experience a bloody armored truck assault from the film’s prologue from several different angles later in the film. The problem is, the chapter that features the introduction of the crew nearly sucks all the life out of this heretofore promising film like a fart on a first date.

We learn that the paper-thinly written crew, composed of a gaggle of ex-military types who, all out of “Arabs to kill” or an enemy they “can see,” get the brilliant idea to knock off one armored truck after the next, aided by an inside man at Fortico, the same armored truck company that Statham, clearly a dude with a shadowy past, recently started working at. This crew, who amount to Statham’s antagonists for the back half of the film, are boring-as-fuck caricatures, each less likable or interesting than the next. I get it, they’re bad guys, but in a stratospherically-better films like Heat that this film is clearly inspired by on some level (at the very least unconsciously), part of the allure is simply well-written bad guys that we care about just as much as our “Hero.” Even Den of Thieves, which is in itself derivative of the vastly superior Michael Mann film, has villains you care about. Here, not one of them are remotely believable or relatable. At no point do you get the sense that this crew inhabit a shared past, have affection for one another, or have a point of view on some established theme that influences the story.

But the writing’s not all bad outside of the bad guys, at least from a structural standpoint. Although like I said this in no way “feels” like a Ritchie film, minus the genre and the fact that the lead here is a limey, the one aspect that does seem “Ritchian” is how the director leverages the passage of time to reveal several key story points in a very satisfying and surprising way. And being in part a heist film, a movie in this genre demands solid writing, and mostly succeeds, but mostly from a structural standpoint. That said, the fact there are two writers aboard this project in addition to Ritche indicates that the movie we get here appears to be the subject of a Frankensteinian approach to screenwriting and/or pre-production. Our boy “H” (Statham), gets decent characterization and some of the banter between him and his new chief at the security company, Bullet (a mostly excellent Holt McCallany) tickled my funny bone a bit during the first half of the film. I loved the training sequence during H’s onboarding and the chemistry between H and Bullet is solid. My man-crush Josh Hartnett makes an appearance as one of H’s crew members on their armored rig, and Josh does his best with some mostly pedestrian dialogue, but still manages to shine on account of his wieldy charisma. But the bad guys, they feel like they were an afterthought, a remnant from a DTV release with no business being in this otherwise decent little film.

From a thematic standpoint, one point that struck me, and I’m going to go out on a limb here, was the name given to our “Hero,” played by Statham. Bullet calls him simply “H,” and as soon as I got a glimpse of his origin, which reveals that he is an incredibly powerful figure in the criminal underworld, I began to get the idea that this character’s name is a pseudonym or epithet for another character who belongs to the “Underworld”: the Greek god Hades. In fact, the titles of the film’s chapters seems to support this notion, with the first chapter of the film entitled “A Dark Spirit.”

In Greek mythology, Hades is one of the original gods who conspired with his brother, Zeus, to overthrow the Titans and rule the universe. Hades is the lord of the Underworld, Zeus the god of the sky, while brother Poseidon is the ruler of the sea. In myth, Hades wanted a wife and appealed to his brother Zeus for one. Zeus allows him to come up from the Underworld and seize Persephone (who also happens to be Hades’ niece) as his wife. He causes a rift in the Earth and emerges from a dark chasm, abducting Persephone as she picked flowers in a field. Persephone’s mother Demeter calls bullshit and creates a famine that strangles the life out of the Earth-plane, and persists until Persephone is returned. H, or Hades, is definitely the “Dark Spirit.”

Now the plot points obviously differ but the title of Wrath of Man’s second chapter is called “Scorched Earth,” which seems to me to be a nod to the myth of Persephone’s abduction and Demeter’s response to it. Hades steals Persephone because he has no wife of his own and in the film, H loses his wife after a family tragedy. Of course in the film, H doesn’t come to Earth for a new wife, he comes to seek revenge, but I started to get the feeling that H wasn’t your run-of-the-mill action protagonist once details about his backstory are finally revealed. H is a stern, cruel man with absolutely no remorse, much like Hades. And in Greek mythology Hades was often so feared that people didn’t dare to utter his actual name, so other names were used to refer to him, hence the moniker “H” being assigned to him by Bullet.

The next chapter is called “Bad, Bad Animals,” and to me indicates how a god might view men, as simply animals that occasionally need to be disciplined, which is what H is here to do. The final chapter, “Lungs, Liver, Spleen, and Heart,” though not referencing ancient myth, does seem to point to primeval times, in this case the Babylonian Law demanding “an eye for an eye” as retribution and punishment for crimes committed against a person, justifying H’s merciless Wrath against the men of Earth.

Bottom line, though deeply imperfect, Wrath of Man is a hugely satisfying actioner that in addition to tremendous fights and shoot-outs, plus a very solid leading turn from Statham, does seem to contain mythopoetic themes that help the film transcend beyond standard genre fare into something unique and memorable. This won’t win any awards, and like I said, suffers mightily from poor development of its thinly-drawn antagonists, but not enough so to completely outweigh the film’s merits. Plus, Wrath of Man is a pretty boss title for a film. Strongly recommend for action fans!

2021 RANKED

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