The weirdest thing about Guy Ritchie’s “Wrath of Man” isn’t that his new meathead heist movie tries to combine the tricksy plotting of “Snatch” (which he made) with the ice-cold steeliness of “Heat” (which he most definitely did not), or that the entire story hinges on the protagonist buying two burritos from the wrong food truck. It’s not that one of the major action set pieces is set to an industrial dubstep remix of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” nor even the undeniable fact that it kind of works. No, the weirdest thing about “Wrath of Man” is that one of the leads is named Bullet, but it’s not the one played by Jason Statham — the most bullet-shaped actor in the history of movies.
Instead, Bullet is embodied by the great Holt McCallany, a mountain of a man who more closely resembles an H-bomb than anything small enough to be fired out of a gun. Statham is therefore cast as H (“like the bomb, or like Jesus”), a mysterious sociopath who’s partnered with the sweet-natured Bullet when he lands a job driving armored trucks for a hyper-militarized Los Angeles-based outfit called Fortico Securities.
Why H is so determined to kill the team of mercenaries who keep robbing Fortico vehicles and why he’s so frighteningly good at it are just two of the many insipid questions that “Wrath of Man” devotes itself to answering in the most labored and roundabout way possible, as Ritchie can’t help but complicate a straightforward action thriller into a steroidal tragedy full of cryptic title cards (“A Dark Spirit”), perspective-swapping flashbacks, and enough moral equivalency to make you wonder if anything matters beyond who’s alive to fire the last shot. It’s like watching someone try and twist a slice of Wonder Bread into a gourmet pretzel salted with dick-measuring dialogue like “you just worry about putting your asshole back in your asshole and leave this to me.” The unleaded testosterone of it all can be fun in small doses, but it’s tiring to see this much muscle straining to lift something so weightless.
But the most frustrating aspect to “Wrath of Man” is that Ritchie’s latest film — a remake of the little-seen 2004 French thriller “Cash Truck” — reminds us what the director is capable of when he’s able to get out of his own way. Nothing here reaches the popcorn glory of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” but there are still moments where Ritchie’s hooligan swagger makes for gripping cinema. That’s especially true at the start. The action kicks off with a breathless (yet low-key) long take that shows us a smash-and-grab job from inside the armored truck getting robbed; it’s tense as hell and framed to make us afraid of what might be happening just off-camera. These guys are obviously pros, but something goes wrong, and they snuff out a few lives along with the money they steal.
The only thing we know about H when he joins with Fortico Securities later is that he’s personally motivated to kill the thieves, and more than willing to use himself as bait to make that happen. Ritchie — a lad’s lad if ever there was one — predictably delights in the frat house energy of Fortico HQ, as the director swan-dives into that clogged cesspool of masculinity with all the panache of Scrooge McDuck jumping into his vault of gold coins. “Wrath of Man” is never more fun than when H is initiated into the group; it’s 20 minutes of Statham cocking his head at misogynistic characters with names like Boy Sweat Dave (Josh Hartnett) and then emasculating the entire company when, Terminator-style, he thwarts an attempted robbery during his first shift. Post Malone plays a mid-level thug who shows up just long enough for Statham to shoot him in the face, which you have to appreciate if only because of how funny it is to imagine the mega-famous musician begging his manager for that honor… even if it meant being credited as “Robber #6.”
And the oddball casting choices don’t stop there: Ritchie could’ve made an entire movie about Eddie Marsan’s Fortico office manager and Rob Delaney’s oily CEO arguing over where to fire H (because he’s terrifying) or promote him (because he’s terrifying), and maybe he should have. All the while, Bullet takes H under his wing, and the warm embrace of McCallany’s gentle giant routine lends his section of the film the sense of heart that the rest is sorely missing.
And there’s a lot more going on here, if only because H doesn’t give Ritchie enough story to span two hours. Halfway through the movie, “Wrath of Man” swivels the clock five months into the past and starts all over again from the robbers’ POV as we learn who these guys are and watch them bumble their way down their fateful collision course with Fortico’s all-star new employee. Ritchie assembles a murderer’s row of recognizable faces to fill out the crew, from Jeffrey Donovan as the captain of the team to the likes of Raúl Castillo and Scott Eastwood as some of the foot soldiers who used to serve under him in the military.
It’s easy enough to see the big idea here, as the movie clearly sympathizes with these men to a certain extent. Ritchie stops short of fleshing them out into actual characters (though Donovan has a day job and an oblivious family he loves with all his heart), but he doesn’t blame them for banding together after the army left them to languish in civilian life with plenty of combat skills, but few viable job prospects. Everyone in “Wrath of Man” is looking for a mission. They’re all trying to take what they feel is theirs — wavering between pure survival and personal justice. But for all of the film’s suffocating gravitas and heavy “Sicario” influence (epitomized by a queasy Christopher Benstead score that sounds like a slowed-down recording of someone’s intestinal tract), it’s never interested in anything beyond finding the “coolest” way to set up the big heist that brings all of its characters together at the end.
Ritchie wants so badly to forge something with the hard-edged samurai ethos of a Michael Mann classic and the constipated seriousness of a Denis Villeneuve film, but he can’t disguise who he is at heart. He can’t spin a life-or-death crime saga about an unstoppable force colliding with an immovable object without punctuating it full of his larrikin sense of humor. Statham has never been more commanding as an old school tough guy, but you can feel the air go out of the tires every time he’s forced to say things like “did you make poo poo?” or tells someone to “suck your own dick” before shooting them between the eyes. There’s plenty of room in this movie for some rowdiness, but Ritchie doesn’t know how much, and the silliness and seriousness of it all both dilute each other to the point that the supposedly tragic scene at the heart of this story seems like it’s being played for laughs.
That tonal imbalance extends to a protagonist who never becomes dimensional enough to need a second letter, and a balls-to-the-wall climax shot with the kind of high-octane force that suggests you’re watching it live, but also sliced up in the style of an “Ocean’s Eleven” heist to the point, where even a bullet to the head feels hypothetical. Ritchie wants to have it all, because at some point along the way — amid the Disney remakes and aborted franchises — it seems like he started to worry that his movies don’t belong to him anymore. Now he’s grabbing as much as he can to make them his own. The ultimate sin of “Wrath of Man” is that it doesn’t realize it’s really a story about pride.
United Arts will release “Wrath of Man” in theaters on Friday, May 7.
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