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'Wrath of Man' Review: Guy Ritchie underestimates his own star and story in needlessly messy crime thriller

Jason Statham returns to a cold-blooded world of firefights and fistfights, but there's no tangible drama in this crime drama.

[[Note: When "Wrath of Man" releases in the U.S., it will largely be at indoor movie theaters during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. While the purpose of this review goes deeper than binary recommendation to discuss the film's merits as an artistic work in context of its time, we encourage our readers to continue exercising the latest safety guidelines from health authorities and consider them if and when you may decide to visit the cinema to watch this movie.]]

Hell hath no fury like Jason Statham scorned. Hollywood knows this, or else it wouldn’t have crowned the English actor/human hurricane its patron saint of violent vindication.

On the one hand, that means the hastening of Bruce Willis’s career to the digital straight-to-DVD bin. On the other, it means the giddy smirk of anticipation unfurling on our faces whenever we see Statham’s brooding face turn even stormier – his eyebrows suddenly arched steeper, his gaze steelier – as he prepares to explode into a whirlwind of fists, blades and bullets, often at the expense of poor souls underestimating his character. It’s mighty satisfying when the movies tap into audience familiarity with a certain performer, and that electric current continues to bear a strong voltage when it’s running through Statham.

That jolt is also (briefly) felt in the new “Wrath of Man,” where Statham’s character is advised to sit, smile and play nice as the cash truck he works to guard runs into a spot of gun-toting trouble in one of his first days on the job. As you can imagine, the advice isn’t followed. Statham’s protagonist goes by H, an ambiguous name worthy of his mysterious intentions. But the messy way those motivations are unfurled and expanded upon is indicative of a movie whose director – the testosterone-fueled Guy Ritchie – underestimates its star just as much as the goons H cuts down do. A pulp thriller with scant few thrills and a crime drama in which the lack of drama should constitute a crime, “Wrath of Man” is sorely missing a compelling and comprehensible narrative worthy of the evolution Statham has undertaken since the last time he partnered up with Ritchie for 2005’s “Revolver.” This particular reunion – an adaptation of the 2004 French film “Cash Truck” – is a two-hour lit wick leading to a stick of dynamite whose explosion we’re still anticipating when the credits start to roll.

Kicking off with a single-shot robbery sequence that’s far and away the film’s most bluntly impressive set piece thanks to how it restrains our perspective – a decision with storytelling implications to be revealed later -- “Wrath of Man” otherwise has the stripped-down approach of a movie that could’ve been shot during the pandemic, though reports indicate shooting finished just before the crisis started. Either way, even though “Wrath of Man” has the makings of an interesting small-scale rendezvous for a filmmaker who’s recently ventured into big-budget franchise territory, Ritchie’s movie is one where the story is simple but the storytelling unimaginative and dull. We sort of come to learn the who, the what and the why of H’s position in the story – a revenge saga that doesn’t know how to shape its corrupt moral center once it’s been riddled with gunfire – but “Wrath of Man” only seems partially interested in him or our connection to the star playing him, instead insisting on its jigsaw narrative construction of multiple timelines and perspectives that we’re too busy trying to keep straight anyway. Most disappointing is that Ritchie doesn’t provide anything like the aesthetic delights of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” or the pure cartoonishness of “The Gentlemen” to keep us from frustrating over how haphazard it all feels.

And the movie is mighty haphazard, almost as if it were keen to disguise how straightforward a story it is with a mistranslation of plot. Wait, who is this group of suspicious characters we haven’t met before? We can’t worry about them; we’re still trying to locate ourselves in the timeline of events. Hold on, how does H believe these faceless victims he’s silenced are connected to his pursuit of revenge? We shan’t dwell on it; we’re still too busy figuring out where he fits in the larger crime picture of this metropolis. Perhaps the disorientation is the point, an entrypoint into viewing “Wrath of Man” as a study of one man’s spiral into dehumanization after a beloved relative is cruelly killed. At that point, however, we’re the ones making excuses for Ritchie, and he isn’t meeting us halfway.

At a certain point, despite Statham’s best intentions as our most charismatic killing machine, the only thing we can make of an escalating body count in “Wrath of Man” is that there’s nothing to make of it. If the movie’s flat visual language and crassly indecipherable editing were its biggest issues, Ritchie might have had something interesting to suggest about the cliches he’s co-opting, namely about how heroism is a matter of perspective. Yet his screenplay (a collaboration with Marn Davies and Ivan Atksinon, who also worked on “The Gentlemen”) gives itself far too much credit, and is emblematic of Ritchie’s worst tendency to think of himself as an original.

Statham deserves better, as the current phase of his career has shown. While there’s no big-name actor currently working whose face would make more sense for us to see above the title of this particular film’s poster, the English actor’s output over the last half-decade – including “Spy,” the “Fast and Furious” extravaganzas and even “The Meg” – has proven how adept he can be at displaying comedic chops while not breaking his thousand-mile stare. But “Wrath of Man” bottlenecks him, and presents Statham regressing to the mean of burly brawlers, a trope he’s done so well differentiating himself from up to this point. Here he’s an avenging angel-type whose emotional journey is submerged in a hardened exterior – this is Jason Statham, after all – but whose tireless pursuits we never doubt the eventually success of. This is Jason Statham, after all.

“Wrath of Man” is one of the most frustrating kinds of crime movies—it’s eager to revel in the loud and violent, hoping it slips on a pool of blood to stumble into some purpose for being. But Statham’s characters never slip, which is why this story is reaching for something the rest of us can’t see.

"Wrath of Man" is rated R for strong violence throughout, pervasive language and some sexual references. It releases in local theaters Friday. 

Starring: Jason Statham, Holt McCallany, Josh Hartnett, Scott Eastwood

Directed by Guy Ritchie

2021

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