It’s been 23 years since Guy Ritchie helped launch Jason Statham as a reliable action-thriller star in 1998 with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The duo came together one more time in 2005 for Revolver, so it’s fascinating to see them reunite a staggering 16 years later for Wrath of Man, a killer, beat-em-up shootout that calls back to the violent crime epics where these two really got their start.
In many ways, Wrath of Man harkens back to the ambitious, set-piece obsessed nihilism of Heat, Copland, and a slew of restrained 90s action films about dark mercenaries with their own mysterious code of ethics informing their unpredictable behavior. Whether or not Wrath of Man pulls off any of these tropes successfully will be fully up to the viewer.
It’s important to stress that Wrath of Man is an extreme example of “what you see, what you get.” Statham isn’t trying anything new, here, and neither is Ritchie beyond a few unnecessary, experimental camera zooms on top of the usual Ritchie flair. If you’re a diehard fan of these movies and what they represent for the broader action flick culture surrounding them, then Wrath of Man will almost certainly go down smoothly, even if it doesn’t really surprise or subvert in any meaningful way. Especially if you’re a fan of the more heightened black comedies Ritchie has evolved as recently as in last year’s The Gentlemen.
Set in a fantastical vision of L.A. where cash trucks get hijacked about as often as they would in a “Grand Theft Auto” video game, Jason Statham plays the quietly stern H, who gets a job as a private security cash truck driver shortly after a group of criminals execute two guards at gunpoint. H passes his fitness training with average grades and meets a gallery of side characters to flesh out the “who’s who” of a predictably telegraphed inside job underpinning the film’s prologue. There’s the jovial mentor, Bullet (Holt McCallany), self-obsessed “Boy Sweat Dave” (Josh Hartnett), token one-liner woman Dana (Niamh Algar), and a few other potential red herrings.
At first, the plot is as straightforward and linear as it gets. While getting acclimated to the job, it’s clear from the get-go that there’s more to H than previously believed by his new coworkers, though the audience will be several comfortable steps ahead of them. As revelations begin to pile on this boilerplate plot, the film swerves into tangential side stories denoted by chapters reminiscent of Tarantino. These detours work surprisingly well, if only because so much of this world is so baseline and uncomplicated, it’s not like adding more layers of characters and mythology will make the whole thing fall apart under its already light weight.
And it all thankfully ladders up to a truly stunning finale, which fills up an entire third act and overshadows all of the action and thrills up to this point. Ritchie still knows how to stage a free-fire, “anything goes” set piece, and Statham can still sell the hell out of being a tough guy with nothing to prove, even to himself. If Wrath of Man had better dialogue (seriously, Guy Ritchie seems to love making Americans talk like they’re in corporate training videos) and a less bumpy first act with more takes, we could be looking at one of the most satisfying action crime films since Den of Thieves.
It’s still a little tiring to see yet another action rampage that really just comes down to an angry man seeking revenge. Would it be asking too much for some diversity of motivation? The film is still helped by its engaging heist dynamic and its shifting focus on its villains for part of the film, giving them a chance to spice up this otherwise drab limp to the climax you’ve really been waiting for. Jeffrey Donavon, Laz Alonso, and Scott Eastwood pop in eventually, and though there’s not much new about them in the way of character schematic, it’s still rewarding to see these familiar faces hamming it up in less sympathetic roles than they’re usually known for.
Less successful is the inclusion of Andy García as a forgettable exposition device and Rob Delaney as an amusing, but too sparingly utilized comedic relief that just doesn’t quite match the rest of the film’s dour tone. Though the film does occasionally drift into the sillier self-awareness seen in other Ritchie films like The Man from U.N.C.L.E..
All that said, Wrath of Man is practically bulletproof when it comes to the many flaws you can nit and pick to your heart’s content. The only one of any real lasting power is the decision to cast Statham as a surprise badass, when something like that only really works with actors like Bob Odenkirk in Nobody or to some extent, Keanu Reeves in John Wick. Of course, the trade-off is that you still get Jason Statham, so maybe we should just relax and let the painter paint.
Wrath of Man is being released by MGM/United Artists exclusively in theaters on Friday, May 7, 2021.
Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc