I love Guy Ritchie’s London gangster comedies — Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; Snatch; The Gentlemen — but you wouldn’t exactly call them tight.
Wrath of Man, toplined by Jason Statham, the action star Ritchie largely created, finds the director working in a completely different register. This one is more like a somber minor-key concerto than a comic opera. Picture a Michael Mann thriller except with a coolly determined, vengeance-minded Charles Bronson figure at the center of it.
Based on a 2004 French film called Le Convoyeur (released in the U.S. under the title Cash Truck), The Wrath of Man relies heavily on beats developed in Mann’s 1995 Heat. But this movie, instead of focusing equally on the cops and the robbers, sets up a balance between two exceptionally professional gangs that rob armored trucks in L.A. and their prey, the security guards who ferry around large amounts of cash in them. It’s all building up to a gigantic clash on Black Friday, when the maximum amount of cash is being moved around. (And Black Friday would have been a more illustrative and better title for the film.)
Statham has proven he can play an entire movie with a smirk, as in the ludicrously over-the-top Transporter and Crank movies, but this time he strikes a stone-faced and coiled pose as “H,” a mysterious newbie employee doing cash pickups for an armored-car company. Despite intentionally tanking some of his tests so as not to engender too much suspicion, he is . . . well, he’s Jason Statham, and he clearly doesn’t belong among this crew of Paul Blarts. Ritchie takes considerable time slowly unveiling who H really is and what his motivations are, so I won’t give too much away. Let’s just say H is angry about something, and he won’t quit until his wrath has been inflicted upon various men, one in particular (there’s an undisciplined hothead who ruins every carefully planned heist, and this time he’s played by Scott Eastwood).
Ritchie’s previous films are so jokey and whimsical and loose, and prone to skittering away on wild comic tangents, that the gravity with which he infuses Wrath of Man comes as a big surprise. It’s a taut suspenser, albeit one that’s half an hour longer than some of the 90-minute mid-Seventies drive-in movies that inform it. As H grows in stature within his security company and advances toward a deadly goal unknown to the audience, Ritchie resolutely concentrates on building menace and foreboding, aided greatly by a musical score (by Christopher Benstead) that’s so unnerving that it could have been used in a horror film.
With its chronological jumps, Wrath of Man has something of the feel of Steve McQueen’s Widows, and with its protagonist’s black-eyed determination, it recalls S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete. Instead of the usual, and usually delightful, stylized slang Ritchie favors in his scripts (this time written with Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies), the dialogue this time is far less showy, much more like the pared-down tough-guy patter of a Clint Eastwood or Chuck Norris vehicle. “Let me buy you a beer,” H tells an annoying guy in a bar. “Just make sure you drink it over there.” As with a Bronson or Eastwood character, H may be a commendable marksman, but the only superpower he really has is his absolute fearlessness. That, and an ability to withstand pain.
Statham is excellent — when is he ever otherwise? — despite having much less verbal frolicking to do than usual. In the few scenes when he does get to speak, he makes his words count. When he delivers the line, “You need to understand how resourceful and serious I am,” he is unlikely to leave anyone doubting the applicability of those adjectives. And when he says, “I know who you love. And I do bear a grudge,” he is unlikely to receive a retort any friskier than “Yes, sir.”
Though it’s a solid, intense effort, Wrath of Man does cover some well-worn narrative paths, and consequently it isn’t one of Ritchie’s best. Since Ritchie isn’t going for laughs but grit, the most important aspects of a film like this are the aplomb with which the action scenes are staged and the cleverness of the scripting that works out ways for H to escape impossible situations. On both counts, the film does fine, but no better than that. Which is also typical of the let’s-not-be-too-clever Seventies style to which Ritchie aspires. The list of ingredients for this film is brief, and it is as follows: meat, potatoes.