Wrath of Man (2021) Review

I’m loath to admit that this movie is good

Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Jason Statham, Holt McCallany, Scott Eastwood

I had my eye on this one since the trailer, which felt like “Jason Statham with a difference.” In my Hollywood headcanon, Guy Ritchie is a joke – one I don’t care to make. He sold out his early director persona and made a string of big, obnoxious blockbusters, terminating in the live-action Aladdin. I know I’m not supposed to care about a “sellout,” but it’s just so creased on the edge here, to the point whereupon he returns to his original persona, it’s my duty to refuse. Thus, the protest culminates in a review of a movie one year after its release.

Of course, it isn’t Guy Ritchie I have an issue with, it’s Statham. He’s the only action star I outright avoided, skipping out on the Transporter series and his movies with one-word titles like Safe, Homefront, Parker, and so on. I saw The Italian Job because it was on TV all the time, and then the Crank duology, the first two Expendables (ugh). The problem was that, for all his talents evidenced in the trailers, he became synonymous with The PG-13 Action Movie at a time when I was too old for that (age 13). What I did end up seeing, from Ghosts of Mars through to Death Race, was a remarkably unchanging man. He never ages, never expresses range, never stops driving a car and killing everyone.

More importantly, he’s never not the good-est guy. Although edgier than comparable action heroes (closer to Mel Gibson than Sylvester Stallone), Statham is probably most like the American Jackie Chan, in that his characters’ names could all be Jason (but instead they’re things like Deckard Shaw and Jonas Taylor).

I assume that Guy Ritchie understands Jason Statham better than most directors, but Wrath of Man doesn’t seem written for Jason Statham. In this movie, he never smiles, never turns on the charm. He’s a mean bastard, possibly evil. Whether it’s the classic Henry Fonda squaring up against Charles Bronson, or any actress over 40, the move from hero to villain is usually compelling. Think Matt Damon in The Departed or Interstellar, even The Last Duel. And Statham is compelling as “H” here. (That’s the character’s name, sort of). H isn’t quiet, he’s calculating. So it’s actually disappointing, then, that when the story is revealed, the titular “wrath” turns out to be revenge.

Revenge is difficult. At its most effective, the revenge movie makes a concerted effort to bring us to a point of empathy with the avenger, whether it’s the immersion of Oh Dae-su’s suffering in Oldboy or the saga recounted in Hara-kiri. Most of the time, however, we’re given one scene between the father and child or the husband and wife, which is a lot of weight to put on actors. They have to convince us of an entire relationship – and then we have to care about it, all under four minutes.

Revenge is also simple. Wrath of Man is a movie about different kinds of professionals planning and executing meticulous plots. I’d prefer if Jason Statham’s motivation was consistent with that world, not at odds with it. Maybe he’s a kingpin trying to move his chess piece one space across the board (or whatever the chess terms are). Instead, when the dust has settled, he’s kind of a good guy still. His motivations are accessible, not inside baseball like everything else in his life.

Purposely muted until the reveal, Statham is surrounded by other actors playing with type. There’s Holt McCallany, whose reliable gentleness is like a career-long redemption for his character in Alien 3 (ugh, he’d make a great Batou), and then Josh Hartnett, who initially appears as the Jeffrey Donovan character in Sicario – slick, cool – but turns out to be a blubbering scaredy-cat. Naturally, you need a fall guy for Jason Statham to look cool around. And then Jeffrey Donovan plays an old guy. Also, “muted” is a strong word.

See, my understanding of Guy Ritchie came from a friend in college who was a crime thriller expert, with Quentin Tarantino in the center and moving outward toward Elmore Leonard and Jean-Pierre Melville. Around that time, Guy Ritchie was in this pantheon, with films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and especially Snatch. Despite my friend lending me a DVD copy of Snatch, I’ve still never seen it. So much to say I was unprepared for how bad the dialogue in Wrath of Man was gonna be. Here’s a few examples based on the genre of badness.

Ratatat repetition:

Statham: Who do you work for?
Robber: Suck my fucking dick!
Statham: What did you say?
Robber: I said suck my fucking dick!
Statham: Suck your own dick.

Dave: Pretty soon you’ll all be working for me. The power’s in this big head here.
Dana: Well, it’s definitely not in your little head, or are you still blaming the beer?

Yeah, both of these examples are also fixated on penises, and there’s a fair bit of that. But more pressing to me is what appears to be a screenwriting trap. Believe me, you feel awfully clever when you write like this, but people don’t often reply in conversation by restating what’s just been said. Maybe once or twice, not every single time.

Bullet: It’ll take you a while to dial in.
Dana: Hasn’t taken me very long.

Dave: Do you have any idea how dangerous this job can be?
Statham: Some idea, yeah.
Dave: No, you have no idea.

It’s almost like sentence cannibalism, and when you keep hearing the same words over and over again – at this film’s rate – the dialogue takes on a dull rhythm that never reaches Tarantino’s lyricism or Sorkin’s wit. I mean, none of this is funny.

Then there’s the arbitrary poetry:

Bullet: I can picture it now. A paragon of modern man on a wild sojourn, stalking down the aisles, hunting for Pop-Tarts.
Statham: Pop-Tarts are not really my poison, Bullet.

Hubbard: What do you want us to do?
King: Not a fucking thing. Let the painter paint.

And what the hell, dick stuff:

Bullet: You’re a cock, Dave.
Bob: I reckon our man here could pull yours right off.
Dave: He looks like he could handle a cock.
H: Yeah, small hands. Makes me very popular, and you look good.

That’s kind of clever, I guess, but if that’s the heat you’re bringing, it isn’t gonna sustain two hours. Fortunately, this snappy, sometimes homophobic dialogue fades over the course of the second act, as if the mechanisms of the plot demand a narrowed focus; no time for bullshit.

And yet, there’s plenty of bullshit. The crime thriller is a landmine genre for directors, and I thought of several while watching Wrath of Man. It’s as if Ritchie is shooting for Michael Mann with this LA-set story (clearing David Ayer), and the quick-cut montage accenting scenes – partly a function of a time-hopping story – effects the sort of trademark incoherence of Martin Scorsese. Ritchie is playing with style in an overcrowded, overstylized genre, and it’s sometimes apparent. There’s a moment where a camera movement very obviously signals the start of a long tracking shot (from a car across a parking lot to a building), and while this is always impressive, it serves no plot purpose and contains little business.

It might be something about the psychological effects of violence, that sometimes even hardened gangsters need to go for a think, but I’d be hard-pressed to claim there’s anything meaningful being said. It’s far from a thoughtless film, however; I appreciated the decidedly non-American approach to soldiers, for one. In a depiction like ronin in peacetime, they’re addicted to violence but not affected by it. Like the gangsters and the security guards, they’re just another faction of hard cases with guns, with their own language and cultural touchstones.

By the final movement of Wrath of Man, I realize that this is a movie that spends itself building up to the climax. Sounds like a cheap trick, but I fall for it every time. Whether Hara-kiri or what we remember of Takashi Miike’s Audition, it’s the movies that tinker and poke before finally giving way to a sequence of sustained tension. What makes the big shootout in Wrath of Man work so well isn’t that it’s a big shootout, with a reserved pace and limited spectacle, but because we know all the players, their motivations, and their next moves. It all plays out across multiple perspectives as we bounce around the space, minding where everyone is and what they’re doing. It’s – and I was determined never to say this – masterful direction.

There are movies and TV shows whose payoffs are so good that they’re worth the build-up, like Hellbound on Netflix – almost unbearable for three episodes before, as if by magic, being entirely worth it – and I think Wrath of Man is one of them. True enough, the unfolding mystery box stereotypically gives us nothing compelling in the moment – and that void is filled by penis dialogue – but for some reason it wasn’t a deal breaker. I’m a bit concerned it’s because I wanted to know what Jason Statham was gonna do next.

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