H Like A Bomb (Review: Wrath of Man)
“Wrath of Man” is Streaming On Demand.
There aren’t that many movies that kicked off an entire sub-genre. I’ll concede that, prior to 1995, an awful lot of crime movies existed. You had your action flicks, your mobster movies, and your heist cinema, for example. Jimmy Cagney’s career was built on crime movies, and Marlon Brando won Oscars for On the Waterfront and The Godfather, both of which have to do with the underworld.
And then? Heat came along in 1995. At the time, all that was really advertised about the film was that it starred Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. That right there is usually enough to get butts in seats.* But, wait, there’s more! Heat is written and directed by Michael Mann, the patron saint of cinematic stories about competency intertwined with morality.** He’s a thoughtful and intelligent filmmaker, one who specializes in examining how men do their jobs and what it costs them.
But what really cemented Heat into the culture was its concept. It’s not Dirty Harry mowing down hordes of faceless baddies, nor is it an upright hero battling a cackling villain. You have a team of smart thieves plotting a serious takedown of a bank, and a team of intelligent cops on their tail. For a while, De Niro’s Neal McCauley has the upper hand. Yet Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna starts closing in on him. From there, the power dynamic between the two shifts back and forth in a series of moves and stratagems. Heat is an incisive character study, a balls-out action film and an epic, all rolled into one.
Of course, there were ripoffs. Triple 9 and Den of Thieves are not especially beloved by me. The Town, Baby Driver, and Widows do the best job of capturing the characterization, precision, and action found in the original. Now, a new fighter has entered the ring with Wrath of Man. It’s a film that starts strong, ends strong, and suffers from second act bloat.
Patrick Hill (Jason Statham) is the new guy. He’s taken a job at Fortico, a Los Angeles armored car company, and his supervisor Bullet (Holt McCallany) figures Patrick is just another dude. Hill qualifies with seventy percent firearms and driving proficiency, meaning that a) he’s good enough to go into the field and b) he gets to have a fun nickname like everybody else.
Now he’s known as H, and he doesn’t exactly endear himself to his co-workers. The loudmouthed Boy Sweat Dave (Josh Hartnett) isn’t a fan, and Dana (Niamh Algar) figures H might only be good for a short term fling.*** As far as everybody figures, H is just some guy content to punch his time card and collect a paycheck.
This being a movie starring Jason Statham, everybody discovers there’s more to H than meets the eye. During an attempted robbery, H steps up — hard. Six dead guys later and suddenly he’s a shoo-in for employee of the month. Clearly they have underestimated H and there’s nothing suspicious in any way going on, right?
Not so much! Since it’s apparently Armored Car Robbery Season, H is involved in another attempted theft. Instead of a big old gunfight, one of the thieves gets a good look at H’s mug, then the whole crew splits. From there, we learn what H is really up to, why he’s doing what he’s doing, and exactly how far he’s willing to go.
Not long ago, we talked a little about the difference between a journeyman director and an auteur. Guy Ritchie is definitely an auteur, and when you watch Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, there’s no doubt of a singular perspective at work. However, the dude has bills to pay, and I seriously doubt he decided to direct King Arthur: Legend of the Sword to scratch some Arthurian itch. We all do things for money, which is fine, yet you can usually tell the difference between the projects Ritchie is passionate about and the ones where he’s getting paid.
With Wrath of Man, things get a little bit strange. The first act mostly feels like Ritchie’s work, with propulsive pacing and fast cuts. The third act features explosive action where questions are answered, plot dominoes fall, and many, many bullets fly. Ritchie definitely takes a page from Michael Mann here, and the gun battles are cleaner, smoother, and less frenetic than the kind of thing he’s usually doing. The tone is a bit more somber, and it all feels like Ritchie is making a kind of homage to Heat. Great! Speed is an homage to Die Hard, and it’s a damn fine film in it’s own right. If Ritchie wants, I’m good with him stepping outside his comfort zone.
It’s the second act that feels wonky. I get that Ritchie likes to futz around with timelines, and loop back later to an earlier scene in order to show that an event of significance took place. That takes place here, but without the same confidence displayed in his previous work. Ordinarily, when new information and additional complications are introduced, Ritchie hits the gas. Here, while it’s meant to be a slow burn, the pacing grows sluggish along with the clarity of the plot. I’m watching and thinking, “Wait, organized crime is involved now? There’s human trafficking?!” I would have thought those second act story elements would feature heavily in the third act. They don’t, which is disappointing. Also, for close to half the film, the dialogue is written in Ritchie’s signature dark humor. In the second half, the humor buys two tickets to Tarantinoville and just leaves entirely. Is it because Ritchie wrote the screenplay with Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, and their individual styles didn’t mesh well? I don’t know why it doesn’t feel right, I just know that there’s a problem.
Ritchie and Jason Statham are old pals, so I can understand the two of them working together again. Ordinarily, Ritchie brings Statham out of the glowering, hard boy shell and gets lighter performances here. As H, he’s even more monosyllabic and closed off than usual. As you watch, you’ll understand why that is, but I would have liked to have seen some degree of vulnerability to make the performance more interesting. As Bullet, Holt McCallany plays his character as a semi-friendly bear, and his warmth is much needed. It was an interesting choice for Scott Eastwood to play someone who comes off as such a massive weasel. I would have thought his old man would have kicked his ass for that, but apparently not. Jeffrey Donovan’s Jackson is focused, prepared, and is set up to be an interesting foil to H. That never pays off either. Too bad, as we almost had a strong film about two highly competent guys at odds with each other.
Overall, Wrath of Man is a pretty good time at the movies. It drifts into occasional self-seriousness, and the second act becomes just this side of incomprehensible. For a film with so much of Heat running through its DNA, it works hard to establish its own identity. I just wish it had the same clarity of vision.
*The exception being the ghastly Righteous Kill.
**Mann has never made a movie about people who are bad at their jobs. That’s why it would give me immense (and perverse!) pleasure to see him make a film about the Trump Administration.
***And yet Dana doesn’t get a cool nickname? At least she’s not stuck with “Boy Sweat Dave.”