Writer/director Guy Ritchie last dazzled audiences (or, at least this reviewer) with the fairly up-tempo 2019 Matthew McConaughey crime-thriller-comedy The Gentlemen. A film which, despite a few faults, reminded audiences how much of a good time they can have exploring the seedier parts of humanity when Ritchie’s in the director’s chair. His theatrical follow-up is another crime thriller and it repairs the director with Jason Statham (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw) for the first time since 2005’s Revolver. Unlike their last film, their new one eschews comedy for something darker and grittier, where menace drips from every frame. Ritchie offers audience-goers Wrath of Man, adapted from writer/director Nicholas Boukhrief and writer Éric Besnard’s 2004 dramatic thriller Le Convoyeur. It’s mean, not so lean, and unlike anything we’ve seen from Statham in some time.
Set in Los Angeles, Wrath of Man follows Patrick Hill (Statham) as he joins Fortico Securities, a company that offers armored protection for businesses with large sums of money. Nicknamed H by his trainer, Bullet (Holt McCallany), Patrick and Bullet, along with Boy Sweat Dave (Josh Hartnett), go out for H’s first run, only to be hit by robbers. To the surprise of all involved, H takes them down without so much as batting an eye. Not a cop, but not an ordinary man, H has everyone at Fortico wondering why a man with his skills is working in armored car security. More importantly, why does it feel like he carries the specter of death with him?
The less you know about Wrath of Man going in, the better, so the above summary sticks closely to what’s shown in the trailer. In fact, if you’ve seen the trailer, you know more about the film than what’s written above. What can be said about the film without ruining the experience is quite a bit, but even that might taint your viewing experience, so move ahead with some sense of caution, not for details, but for shifted expectations.
Wrath of Man is unlike most of Ritchie’s catalogue and it’s undeniably refreshing. There is no comedy here or joy, just dread. Seeping, persistent dread. It begins with the score from composer Christopher Benstead (whom also lent his skills in some capacity for both The Gentlemen and 2019’s Aladdin) and which relies heavily on orchestral strings and an unceasing deep drum which appears in the opening and continues throughout. It’s like a phantasm that haunts the film, continually reminding the audience of the ghosts that linger on the outskirts of the frame, pushing on H, spurring him forward in all aspects of his life. Frankly, if you had told me that it was Oscar-winner Hildur Guðnadóttir (Joker) behind the score, I would’ve loved it even more for its ability to set a constant, pervasive mood. Statham himself hasn’t been this still or quiet in, possibly, his entire acting career. Even his role as Turkish in Snatch, one of his less physically demanding roles and the one that put Statham on this reviewer’s radar, is more full of life and energy than H. It’s not that Statham plays H as lifeless, but as a predator carefully stalking his prey. Compared to all the others around him, H is a force of nature, something which the name of the film and iconography of the opening credits certainly reinforce. Joining the sound and lead performance is the overall look of Wrath from frequent collaborator, cinematographer Alan Stewart (The Gentlemen, Aladdin, King Arthur, both Sherlock Holmes films) who makes the unconfirmed time period of the film feel ripped out of the 1970’s. It lacks the neon glow or synth score of say, Michael Mann’s Thief, but there’s a veil of grime so that nothing appears pristine, whether it’s a person or the production that’s decorated in affluence. If H is our main protagonist, it makes sense for the sake of the story to shroud the light of the world for his vision is truly dimmed, though razor-focused.
To achieve the complex story, there’s a lot more story and less action than one may expect. Ritchie and co-writers Marn Davies (The Gentlemen) and Ivan Atkinson (The Gentlemen ) play across timelines and perspectives in such a way that trying to follow the shifts in view are easier and more engaging than attempting to track the period. Don’t try; save yourself the hassle. In creating a shift in perspectives, the meatiness of Wrath presents itself. Sharks have to swim if they’re to keep from dying and this metaphor applies to all the primary POVs of the film. You may expect to be riding the entire journey with Statham’s H, and that’s likely due to the approach to selling the film to audiences, but this isn’t just his story as he’s just one part of a larger tale that intersected violently. In this way, the larger, less explored aspect of Wrath is Causal Theory and the unpredictable nature in which an event can happen as a result of other things happening. It is not at all upfront about this, but the subtext is there.
This, of course, gets us to one of the more surprising elements of the film: Ritchie’s restraint. Based on the trailer and above synopsis, Wrath of Man is a film of vengeance, not justice. This isn’t about restitution, but retribution. With films like Nobody (2021) or the John Wick films, audiences are tuned to a certain style of violence. Bereft individual dispatches of ne’er do wells with precision and, often, with a wry wink or smile so the audience knows that everything’s going to be alright. There is no aura of safety here, no glee taken from murder. For instance, in 2019’s Roger Avery action-comedy Lucky Day, the direction makes a point to showcase a series of murders in such a manner that the blood leaving the body decorates nearby walls, creating a pattern that will become important to the story later. It’s silly and overt, whether a pointed message to a certain segment of the audience watching the film or not, and is generally in line with the over-the-top nature of the film. This is entirely absent from Wrath to the point where some violence isn’t explicitly shown even if explicitly known. Ritchie focuses on the perpetrators of the violence, not the victims (deserving or otherwise). As much as it pulls back from showing, it also forces the audience to take in the action of the aggressor and how that character reacts. With so much violence inherent in the plot of Wrath, this may be a method of getting around potential censors from the various global regulators (example: the editorial changes in Fight Club for the Narrator v. Angel fight); however, the side effect is that the audience is forced to observe the bloody decadence in relatively close proximity. Consider the camera in the opening of the film which, upon entering an armored car, doesn’t move an inch so that all we see, all we hear, is limited to the frame. There’s intentionality here, in this moment and forever forward, that’s been absent for some time from Ritchie. It’s surprising in its steadiness; opting for the emotional over the primal. This shift results in a different kind of Ritchie experience and it’s a welcome change.
Though Wrath of Man isn’t the thrill-ride audiences have been sold, those who trust in a Ritchie-Statham partnership will no doubt finish content. It certainly helps that there’s a who’s-who of talent in roles major and minor, some who’ve worked with both director/actor in some capacity over the years, others for whom this is a first. No doubt, though, that all involved had a fantastic time thanks to a story that offers more than a simple revenge tale. And Wrath of Man could be that tale. If one were to think of it only from the perspective of the trailer, that’s the film they’re getting. But a trailer is only about enticing its audience to get the full picture. Much like H through the course of the film, patience is paramount and a willingness to explore leads to the satisfied end you crave. You may not get the film you want in Wrath of Man, but you’ll get the experience you need.
In select theaters beginning May 7th, 2021.
For more information, head to the Wrath of Man official website.
Film Score: 4 out of 5.