After career-making turns for Jason Statham (The Meg, Hobbs & Shaw) and Guy Ritchie (The Gentlemen, Sherlock Holmes) more than two decades ago in back-to-back, Quentin Tarantino-inspired films, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, their collaboration abruptly ended with the poorly received Revolver sixteen years ago. A lifetime ago in purely cinematic terms. While both Statham and Ritchie’s respective careers as action-star and director-for-hire continued steadily upward (minus the occasional misstep), a cinematic reunion, while not inevitable, seemed like it was just a matter of time, convenience, and availability before it actually happened. Spoiler alert: It happened.
That fourth collaboration, Wrath of Man, centres on an international man of mystery, Patrick “H” Hill (Statham), a newly hired armoured car guard with a special set of skills and the amorality to protect the company’s daily transfers of cash across a worn-out, worn-down, unglamorous Los Angeles in desperate need of infrastructure investment. It’s the LA we rarely see on film unless gangsters, thieves, and criminal cops are involved (see Heat, Den of Thieves, and Sabotage, among others). Nicknamed “H” by another borderline obnoxious, perpetually gregarious, guard, Bullet (Holt McCallany), Hill is intensely withdrawn, indisposed to sharing the guards’ off-color, homophobic or misogynistic banter, and preternatural calm while barely hiding a rage-filled temperament.
Later, Bullet’s tossed-off comment about “H” also standing in for “Jesus H(ell). Christ” comes to bloody, headshot-filled fruition when H responds to an attempted armoured car hijacking with ruthless, bone-chilling efficiency—dispatching two SUVs filled with under-prepared robbers without breaking a sweat, losing his breath, or wasting a single bullet. He only shows a glimmer of emotion—in this case, disappointment—when the last robber standing (or rather, writhing in anguish as he dies choking on his own blood) can’t answer his demand for a “name.” Lauded by his bosses as a late-stage capitalist hero and treated with a mixture of wary respect and a measure of distrust by co-workers curious about his past, H and his decision for joining the armored car company, months after another robbery left two guards and a civilian dead, predictably begins to sharpen into focus.
Working from an adaptation of a 2004 French crime-thriller, Le Convoyeur (“Cash Truck”), written alongside Marn Davies and Ivan Atkinson, Ritchie employs his usual bag of narrative and cinematic tricks, breaking up a relatively linear story into sizeable chunks that pivot on the earlier armoured car heist—flashing back and forward repeatedly and adding ominous-sounding chapter titles along with the usual hard-R ultra-violence typical of Ritchie’s non-Hollywood work. The flashback structure fills in H’s backstory along with those of the heist crew led by Jackson (Jeffrey Donovan), an ex-Army veteran with money troubles and an eagerness to get back into the “game” (urban warfare). They also happen to be responsible for the botched armoured car robbery seen briefly in the opening scene.
Switching from H and his straightforward, revenge-fuelled mission to the heist crew might add intentional narrative complexity to Wrath of Man, but coming as it does near the halfway mark rather than earlier in the film not only bifurcates audience focus between the H and not-H storylines, but it also leaves H and with him, Statham, waiting on the sidelines for long stretches of time. Even the climax—a supposedly well-planned frontal assault on an extremely well-fortified location—leaves H literally incapable of stepping in or stepping up to participate until practically the very last moment. That’s fine for a film like Heat or any number of imitators since it premiered a quarter of a century ago, but Wrath of Man was meant, not to mention billed, as a star vehicle for Statham and not an ensemble piece.
The fault there, of course, might sit more with the marketing department than Ritchie or Statham, but mixing in so many characters, backstories, and subplots comes at an inevitable cost. Wrath of Man is a shallow, surface-deep actioner that works as neither a standalone Statham film nor an ensemble crime film with something to say about late-stage capitalism (intentionally or not), the nature of 21st-century heroism (don’t do it unless you’re Jason Statham), and the moral or ethical cost, if any, of vigilante justice in a deeply unjust and corrupt world.