One of the chapter headings within Ramin Bahrani’s documentary “2nd Chance,” which profiles the eccentric and controversial inventor of the bulletproof vest Richard Davis, is “Print the Legend,” a line drawn from John Ford’s American classic “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Time and again in the film, Bahrani probes Davis for the truth, to own up to misgivings or inflated stories in his life, only to find him unwilling — or incapable — of admitting otherwise.
But rather than view Davis’ frequent stonewalling as a roadblock, Bahrani, who made his feature documentary debut with “2nd Chance,” saw it as an opportunity to embrace the myth of Richard Davis and unpack the contradictions of the man and the America he influenced with his invention.
“There seemed to be the possibilities of dealing with someone stuck with a real cognitive dissonance about who he is, what he’s done and the reality of what has transpired over the last 20-30 years for him as a person,” Bahrani told IndieWire. “In my mind when I went there, I thought he was going to talk about mistakes he’d made, but he doesn’t, so then the shape of the film inevitably changes because the character you’re talking to doesn’t want to go into that direction anymore.”
Bahrani was approached by the team at the production company Vespucci to make a narrative feature on the life of Davis who, in the 1970s with his company Second Chance, found major success when he proved the safety of his bulletproof vest design — the first to incorporate kevlar into the body armor — by shooting himself in the chest 192 times throughout his life. Given Bahrani’s track record with docu-realistic films that grapple with the pursuit of the American dream (“Chop Shop,” “Man Push Cart”) and the sometimes corrupting influence of capitalism (“99 Homes”), it seemed like a perfect fit.
But he was ultimately drawn to tell “2nd Chance” as a documentary (though a narrative feature with Bahrani involved may still be in the cards), simply because Davis’ story was so rich on its own.
The footage of Davis shooting himself in the chest is plentiful and never get old. “2nd Chance” also grapples with the dilemma that Davis invented body armor that saved countless lives but added to the militarization and arms race of the country, endangering countless more. But the real depth and complexity in the documentary comes as Bahrani probes what made Davis a folk icon and cult figure in his heyday, only to find that the yarns Davis has been spinning all his life don’t add up.
“I like to say everything about Richard is contradictions I thought were very rich. He was by turns obviously very inventive, very courageous, and very brave to risk his own life for this device, which saves people, but the things around him that he did, they all seem to me that there was a way to explore his character and the state of the country through his journey,” Bahrani said. “I didn’t want to get heavy-handed about it, but I felt it could potentially be a metaphor for the country in terms of myths that we believe in, which are often coming out of a lot of bloodshed and violence with these guns, and also unreliable narrators to become leaders, to become leaders of a community and a company in this case, but potentially also the country.”
Vespucci/Courtesy of SHOWTIME
Bahrani allows Davis to share his “origin story” about how he survived a shootout with three armed assailants, but could find no record of any such encounter ever happening. Davis insists that in the case of his two pizzerias mysteriously burning down, it could never have been arson because he didn’t have any insurance. And even when Bahrani presented him with the paperwork that he did in fact have insurance, Davis’ answer never changed.
“How many times can I ask him and he keeps denying it? That’s just what his answer is, so fine, then that becomes the shape of the film,” Bahrani said.
Bahrani highlights Davis’ matter-of-fact humor and Midwestern charm that make him a compelling and likable figure. But he fills in the blanks with interviews with Davis’ former colleagues, ex-wives and old friends, many of whom were burned by Davis over the years. It results in a portrait of a man that is at times earnest, hilarious, or inspiring while also being surreal and unsettling. The most revealing moments of “2nd Chance” don’t come from Davis but from former Second Chance employees who knew the company was cutting corners with its latest body armor design, or from a whistleblower, Aaron Westrick, whose life was saved by a Second Chance vest and was once one of Davis’ closest friends before turning on him.
Davis, on the other hand, showed more emotion about other cops he couldn’t rescue than in discussing his father or mother’s passing or his separation from his wives, Bahrani said. And in fact, Bahrani says that Davis after seeing the film at its Sundance premiere in January admittedly enjoyed the first half of the film more than the second that begins to turn the screws on his worldview.
“He’s not accepting certain things that have happened and he doesn’t want to go deeper into who he is as a person,” Bahrani said. “I’m hesitant to say a lot because I actually like Richard, but I’m not sure if it’s that he didn’t want to. I feel more that he’s not capable of that. His mind and soul doesn’t work that way.”
Bahrani says there’s even plenty about Davis he could not fit into the film, such as other Davis inventions, like a device for erectile dysfunction or another of a bullet called the Thunder Zap that was so deadly and destructive it even made a cameo in a Punisher comic book. And while “2nd Chance” includes snippets of Davis’ propaganda-leaning short films that helped make him into a cult figure among law enforcement, perhaps only Bahrani and his film editor have seen all eight hours of footage that are both “really funny” and “pretty brutal” in revealing Davis’ take-no-prisoners philosophy toward crime.
But in a surprise ending and touching coda, Bahrani pivots at the end of “2nd Chance” to stage an encounter between Westrick and the man who shot him decades earlier. Westrick, despite all the ways that Davis wronged him, still cares for the man and chooses to believe in Davis’ myth, and it’s in this ending that Bahrani unlocks the film’s themes of redemption and forgiveness rather than violence.
“There was a profound humanity and reconciliation between these two men, something more aligned with the philosophies of restorative justice than vigilante justice that Richard believes in,” Bahrani said.
A Bleecker Street release, “2nd Chance” opens in select theaters on Friday, December 2. It will debut on Showtime in Spring 2023.