Jason Statham is a joke. And I mean that with the utmost respect.
I mean that in the same way that Dwayne Johnson is a joke. Vin Diesel is a joke. John Cena built his whole career from the ground up on the fact that he’s a joke.
Jason Momoa… no, I don’t think he’s there quite yet, but he’s been flirting with that line for a while now. Dave Bautista was there for quite some time, but he’s been pushing back hard recently with some savvy career moves (Army of the Dead, the upcoming Dune, etc.). But I digress.
In the case of Statham and his ilk, the joke is that they’re invulnerable. Even when they’re playing characters who supposedly don’t have any superpowers, they’re still inherently better than everyone else to the point where they can shrug off the most fatal of injuries. They’re not people or even demigods so much as they’re male power fantasies, that’s what they’ve built their whole personas around. They walk into an explosion or a gunfight, they walk out unscathed, we cheer and laugh because that’s what we paid to see.
This is not necessarily a bad thing by any stretch. Hell, the last five Fast and Furious movies were built on this sort of thing. Sometimes you need an action hero with meter-thick plot armor who can walk away from wildly implausible stunts without flinching. And sometimes you’ve got an action/comedy or an action parody in which you need an absurdly overpowered slab of meat with a sense of humor.
Alas, this poses a significant problem for Wrath of Man, produced/co-written/directed by Guy Ritchie with Statham in the starring role. This is at once a role that demands Statham to play an unstoppable killing machine while also playing an intensely vulnerable person on an inherently self-destructive mission. The role needed someone who could switch from one to the other on a dime, and Jason Fucking Statham simply isn’t that guy. No audience is going to buy vulnerability from Jason Statham, and we’re not going to believe that his character is at any serious risk of dying, that’s not what we came for.
Let’s take it from the top. Our plot concerns Fortico, an armored truck company operating in Los Angeles. The film opens with a robbery in which an armored truck gets knocked over, a couple of guards get killed, and the culprits get away with the money. Five months later, the culprits still haven’t been caught and there are no leads as to who they were. Thus Fortico decides to take on new workers and beef up security.
Enter Patrick Hill (Statham), quickly dubbed “H” by his new coworkers at Fortico. Patrick doesn’t talk much and makes a point of keeping to himself. He’s got a chip on his shoulder and he’s clearly an imposing man, but he barely got a passing grade on his training exams. Until a Fortico truck gets held up and Hill takes out six armed robbers with lethal precision, all without taking a scratch himself.
(Side note: One of those robbers is played by Post Malone, and he gets shot in the face. To repeat, this movie features Post Malone getting shot in the face. Make of that what you will.)
In case it wasn’t immediately obvious, Hill’s coworkers and higher-ups at Fortico quickly realize that there’s more to Hill than meets the eye. Even weirder, there are signs that certain powerful individuals outside and/or above the law are running scared from Hill. I won’t go into details about the long story here, but as the title suggests, suffice to say this is a revenge thriller.
Among other things.
See, the plot is split into four chapters, and they’re placed in non-sequential order. As the film continues, we learn more about the run-up to that first lethal Fortico robbery and the five months between then and Patrick Hill coming on board. Thus the script plays with time in a way that leads to genuinely clever setups and payoffs.
Even better, each new revelation comes with a new mystery. For instance, right when we learn exactly who robbed the Fortico truck and why, we learn that they had the help of an inside man. Thus the back half is heavily concerned with the question of who our traitor could be and whether Hill can find his backstabbing colleague in time.
Like it wasn’t enough for each chapter to have its own time period, each one also has its own genre. The first part is more or less a straightforward “training day” cop flick. The second one is a textbook revenge thriller. The third one is a heist movie. And the fourth is where they all mesh together into a cohesive whole. Theoretically.
A huge part of why the mesh works as well as it does is because all three genres share a common denominator: Testosterone. And when you’ve got actors like Jason Statham, Holt McCallany, Josh Hartnett, Jeffrey Donovan, Scott Eastwood, and Andy Garcia on deck, all under the direction of freaking Guy Ritchie, you’ve got enough testosterone to float a goddamn armored truck. Even Dana (Niamh Algar), the de facto female lead, is portrayed as tough and masculine enough to carry her weight as the only female employee in the whole company.
Alas, this is a movie with five credited writers, and it shows in the jumbled nature of the plot. The “chapter” layout and genre switches mean that huge chunks of screen time can elapse between action scenes. For that matter, crucial players in one chapter will be wholly absent from another. Bottom line: The pacing is fucked.
But the ending is where the attempted genre mash-up really falls apart. Without getting too deep into spoilers, the “revenge thriller” genre demands our lead character to die, or at least to suffer for his bloody quest in some irreparably traumatic way. Yet it’s also a Jason Statham movie, so we expect Jason Statham to live long enough to kill the bad guy. And it’s a “heist thriller”, which demands that our thieves get away victorious, or at least see their plan through to completion. While the “cop movie” genre demands that our criminals be killed, or at least apprehended.
There are so many different and conflicting objectives with regard to how this movie has to end, given all the different genres the filmmakers attempt to juggle. And their attempt at threading the needle is… well, it’s a joke. In the same way that Jason Statham is a joke. And it’s not a good fit for this particular movie.
In the end, I respect Wrath of Man more than I like it. There’s no denying that the filmmakers had serious guts to take on a film of such ambition and scope, and they’ve got undeniable skill for coming as close as they did. It’s a damn shame they couldn’t quite stick the landing, and the crew of five different screenwriters meant there were way too many cooks in the kitchen. Still, when the film settles into its groove and starts laying out the various twists and reveals and red herrings, it’s deeply satisfying.
I’m glad I didn’t see the film on its first few weekends, because this definitely wasn’t worth an opening day ticket. But for a second-run or a home video viewing, that would be worth the cost of admission.