Some filmmakers and actors are born into this world together. Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham are just such a pair. Their first two collaborations - the shifty, gabby, lively hoodlum sagas Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch - became wildly popular cult hits in the late 1990s/early 2000s, riffing off the warp speed word salad brand of crime film Tarantino had made bankable earlier that decade.
In the nearly twenty years since, Ritchie’s career has coasted off that early success. He’s helmed big-budget Hollywood tent-poles and remakes, but only his breezy remix of The Man From U.N.C.L.E is really worth a damn (although some very smart critics love his Sherlock Holmes films).
Statham has made a living playing charming brutes and crazed maniacs. Action films like Crank and The Expendables have continuously pushed the boundaries of what he can do as a physical performer. But Statham’s also found a calling in the supporting realm, especially when it comes to comedy where his charisma, physical prowess and symbolic stature can be beautifully subverted (see Paul Feig’s Spy). No matter what genre he’s tearing up, the man is fucking charming, but underneath that six-pack glow is a pervasive sense of menace.
In Wrath of Man, their first team-up since Revolver, Ritchie constructs a heist narrative around Statham’s more sinister side, specifically the actor’s otherworldly intimidation skills and boiling determination. The inspiration for his character’s rage is, of course, revenge, but the film denies us specifics and plays with identities enough to keep the archetypical set up fresh.
H (Statham) gets hired on at an armored car firm as a driver, just another grunt looking for steady work. But during his first week on the job quickly dispatches an entire robbery crew single handily, earning himself a reputation with fellow guards Bullet (Holt McCallany) and Boy Sweat (Josh Hartnett). They even go so far as calling H “a dark spirit,” sensing that he’s a much more dangerous force than initially perceived.
Misdirection has been a key staple of every Ritchie film, but in Wrath of Man it’s a crucial part of H’s violent artistry and improvisation. When local Feds start noticing the high body count, their shadowy superior (Andy Garcia) tells them to back off, and “let the painter paint.”
Without divulging any more specifics, Wrath of Man works as a perfect embodiment to this idea of unchecked destruction as creation. The singularity of a vision that cannot be stopped by law and order, or test audiences, or studio heads, or anyone. For the first time, Ritchie and Statham seem to be working without any pretense or limitations, or any obligation to be ironic or cool. This is the hard nosed territory of old B movies by Jules Dassin or Sam Fuller, where the narrative itself is an ever-tightening vice that refuses to cower to empathy.
Nearly every relationship in Wrath of Man is built on quicksand, but few characters are ever able to communicate that sinking feeling in their guts. Many of them never see death coming. Brutality like that leaves a mark, and it’s not something that can be earned through cheap visual gimmicks or fast cutting. As one would expect, Ritchie has fun mixing up the timeline, but he never denies that the endgame will be sudden and bloody. Theirs is a tattered canvas strafed with bullet holes and splintered glass, Statham’s very own Jackson Pollock.
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