There is nothing inherently wrong with grim, humorless characters and atmosphere. Some of the finest films ever made are punishing and relentless. In order for that milieu to succeed, viewers need something to pull them through that wringer. It can be charismatic performances, an eye-popping aesthetic, or an engaging narrative. Wrath of Man, the new action thriller from Guy Ritchie, has nothing to pull us through its dark, twisted story. The performances have no charisma, and photography is competent and dull, while the dense plot has no catharsis or payoff. Maybe Ritchie wanted to make a Michael Mann movie, but learned all the wrong lessons.

In their first collaboration since 2005’s Revolver, Jason Statham plays “H,” a man of few words who was hired as an armored car driver. He passes all the competencies for the job – just barely – so he has a surprise for his colleagues Bullet (Holt McCallany) and Boy Sweat Dave (Josh Hartnett) during a robbery attempt. H ruthlessly kills all the would-be thieves (one of whom is played by Post Malone), so he downplayed his earlier effectiveness with a pistol. The script, co-written by Ritchie along with Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, uses abundant flashback to flesh out H’s backstory. Turns out he is a professional armored car thief, and now he looks for a rogue crew who murdered his son in cold blood. This culminates with a siege on an armored car depot, where a torrent of automatic gunfire undermines complex planning.

Ritchie has been directing genre films for more than 20 years, and he is capable of a formal flourish that engages the imagination. He films the opening scene, the one where H’s son is killed, from three different perspectives – and each one has a different tone and feel to it. There is basic coherence to the frequent shoot-outs, so Ritchie avoids chaotic editing and camera placement. Beyond this baseline, however, the film is total mess. This is never more apparent than the awkward opening act where H gets acquainted with his fellow drivers. The dialogue of full of macho posturing, and no actor in the world could convincingly deliver lines this awkward and ugly. Homophobic insults are frequent, perhaps an intentional callback to ‘90s action films like The Last Boy Scout.

What happened here? You may recall that Ritchie cut his teeth with gangster films that were obvious Tarantino knockoffs, but at least had some personality and wit on display. He also made the underrated The Man from UNCLE, spy film that is rich with style and strong characters. Is it possible that Ritchie, who primarily sets his films in England, has no clue what tough Americans should sound like? The problems do not stop there, since H and a few others are still English. Statham and Ritchie reuniting should be a cause for celebration, since Statham’s wise-cracking characters were highlights in the director’s early work. His performance here is one-note and stoic, to the point where we cannot share his thirst for revenge. Each death feels hollow, and this is not the sort of film where Ritchie comments on the futility of the endeavor.

In terms of action, Wrath of Man is bloody and somewhat confusing. Viscera and splatter are frequent, and while Ritchie’s camera establishes where the characters in relation to each other, other details make it difficult to suspend disbelief. The bad guys are wearing body armor, for example, that seemingly protects them from all gunfire. Some of the die eventually, so the armor/weapons are only effective when the plot requires it, and nothing more. Another egregious error is how Ritchie depicts Los Angeles. He opts for a grey, washed out palette that drains the frame of any personality. Los Angeles does not always need to look sunny and inviting – countless films have depicted the city in memorable ways – but here LA could be a stand-in for any American city. It takes a special dearth of imagination to make Los Angeles, home of the entertainment industry, look generic.

Beyond the gunplay and frequent murder, Wrath of Man aspires to say something Serious about human nature. Ritchie splits the film into four acts, each with an accompanying title card, and each is sillier than the last. There is also a familiar “greed corrupts all” subplot with the thieves, who start as disciplined soldiers then devolve into immoral monsters. None of this is new, and each additional twist or detail unfolds like an afterthought. Wrath of Man is based on Cash Truck, a French thriller from 2004 where the hero is a civilian, not a criminal, who becomes a vigilante. That is a more interesting premise, but the trouble is that Jason Statham – an actor of limited range – could never convincingly portray an everyman. At least H could have had some affection for his son, and yet the film also denies him that. H’s revenge is not borne out of grief, but an implied insult that the rival thieves muscle in on his territory. This film is too clueless to realize that, and suffers accordingly.

Summary
Maybe Ritchie wanted to make a Michael Mann movie, but learned all the wrong lessons.
40 %
Dully Punishing
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