Saturday, June 05, 2021

A Dragon and His Wrath

Jason Statham in Wrath of Man (2021)

Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my waked wrath! 

--Williams Shakespeare, Othello, Act III, Scene III

Guy Ritchie's The Gentlemen was one of the last films I saw before the Covid pandemic closed the theaters. That film was pretty good, and on brand for Ritchie who has always been a deft hand at the achronological semi-comic crime thriller. The theaters are open again, finally, and I've been vaccinated against the virus, so I finally returned to in-person movies at a goddamn theater on Memorial Day, 2021, after the longest absence from moviegoing in my entire long life. As it so happens, the film I chose to see is another Guy Ritchie film: the doom-haunted Wrath of Man (2021), and it suggests that Ritchie could dispense with shit like live-action Disney remakes and King Arthur rehashes and spend the rest of his career playing variations on crime cinema. On the evidence, he would never exhaust the possibilities of the form. Wrath of Man is as different a film from The Gentlemen as you can imagine for being essentially the same damned thing. Like The Gentlemen, it pulls its central events apart and rewinds through multiple perspectives to view them from an almost cubistic perspective. Both of them are crime films. But where The Gentlemen is nimble and fairly light, with jokes aplenty, watching Wrath of Man is like watching a tornado approaching your house and you're in its path without a storm shelter. The gloom is only the precursor to the calamity. It's a stone-faced revenge tragedy that doesn't bother with niceties like humor or sympathetic characters. Its protagonist isn't a hero so much as he's an elemental force. He most reminds me of Clint Eastwood's revenant gunslinger in High Plains Drifter. But even that film cracked a smile once in a while.

Wrath of Man begins with an armored car robbery, shot in a single take from behind the drivers. The whole thing goes awry and the two guards are killed, along with a bystander. This is our first version of the central event of the movie. There are several more versions, each expanding the point of view to add more information, answering questions raised by the subsequent plot: who are the robbers? Is it an inside job? Who was killed and why does it matter? What is the fallout? The central agent in answering those questions arrives in the first chapter of the film, titled on-screen as "A Dark Spirit." His name is Hill and he's a new guard hired by the armored car company sometime after the robbery. The robbery has scared off potential new hires, and Hill is qualified, if barely. Hill is taciturn. He doesn't endear himself to his fellow workers, who view him as a threat to their positions. Bullet, his trainer, dubs him "H," which sticks. He's assigned to partner with the twitchy "Boy Sweat" Dave, who has a bad feeling about him, and when, inevitably, H and Boy Sweat come under fire, those fears seem to be vindicated. Rather than handing over the money, H calmly annihilates the robbers, looking each of them in the face in turn. His bosses are impressed with him and hail him as a hero, some of his co-workers change their attitudes toward him, but Dave and then Bullet in turn are uneasy with the way H went from being a marginal recruit to being death on two legs. This unease is magnified in a subsequent incident when H steps out of the back of his truck and shows his face to a new batch of robbers, who quail at the sight of him and run. Meanwhile, H has his own agenda. He is shown the footage of the robbery at the start of the film and says he has no information on it even though it's clear that he does. The cops investigating H's involvement with his first incident are sure he's someone else, but are told by their superior to "let the painter paint." Then the film turns to H's backstory, which is grim. And then to the criminals behind the opening robbery, which find them making plans for subsequent heists. Each in discreet chapters with titles like "Scorched Earth," and "Bad, Bad Animals." They are all on a collision course.

Jason Statham, Holt McCallany, and Josh Hartnett in Wrath of Man (2021)

Seldom has Jason Statham seemed as cold and as brutal as he is in this film. Statham has played badasses before, some with a sense of humor, but here he's an annihilating angel, a monster distilled from rage and violence. His anger has a gravitational pull, like a black hole traveling through the plot and pulling everything out of true and bending it to his own ends. Ritchie accentuates this with a cold, desaturated color palette and a sinister camera, often pulling out to gods-eye drone shots of the action, that reveal all of the pieces in motion. It's a strikingly disciplined movie, and where other Ritchie films bear a comparison to Tarantino, this one seems more like Jean-Pierre Melville for its existential dread and sucking nihilism. Hell, at times it plays like a horror movie. H is as unstoppable as The Terminator and as terrifying as any slasher movie villain. That he is the ostensible protagonist is disquieting. That he has a moral justification for his actions is even more so. This is a movie about bad people doing bad things, so the moral landscape is relative, but Ritchie films Statham in a way that renders him positively mythological. He doesn't need a moral justification, just as an earthquake doesn't need a justification. He is a dark spirit, indeed.

Auteurist film people are quick to give credit to directors (and then maybe to writers and actors as a last resort), but the general mood of this film owes the lion's share of credit to its cinematography, its virtuoso editing, and to its score. Christopher Benstead's music is so omnipresent and oppressive that it occasionally seems like it's doing all of the heavy lifting, but there's no sin in that. What would Psycho or Vertigo be without Bernard Herrmann, right? The music cues occasionally sound like the trumps of doom during the end days. I'm tempted to watch it with the sound turned off to see how it plays without the music, but I suspect it would play just fine. The editing scheme--kudos to editor James Herbert--is the only element that seems like it's having any fun as it crosscuts between timelines and assembles a cubistic view of events that increasingly looks at the story from multiplying viewpoints all at once. Even if achronological storytelling hadn't become mainstream--especially in crime films--this would be striking for its sheer intricacy. A disciplined film adds information with each cut and each new shot, which is an ethos this film takes almost to an almost compulsive and neurotic degree. It's so tight that it probably eats coal in order to shit diamonds.

Jason Statham in Wrath of Man (2021)

Alan Stewart's cinematography is the right kind of gloomy: not morose so much as it is without pity. It doesn't flatter anyone, though it occasionally seems like it sculpts Jason Statham's bald head out of granite. Statham has never seemed more like architecture than he does in this film. The film is otherwise lacking in glamour, favoring "interesting" faces instead. There are the usual actors from Ritchie's favorite collaborators, but also an aging Andy Garcia, a symbol as shadowy law enforcement; a Josh Hartnett demoted to a character part--a relatively brave performance given that his character is a coward; Niamh Algar as the world-weary female guard who draws H's suspicions; Holt McCallany as the affable trainer, Bullet; Jeffrey Donovan as a criminal mastermind who isn't as smart as he thinks he is; and Scott Eastwood channeling the rage and charisma of his dad just off-kilter enough to suggest dangerous insanity rather than righteous rage. Eastwood in particular suggests the kind of pulp filmmaking with which the elder Eastwood made his name in the 1970s.

For all that, this might be Guy Ritchie's best film, perhaps because he's comfortable with his collaborators. At this stage of his career, he's savvy enough to pick artists who are on his own wavelength and confident enough in his own ego to let them do their jobs, which wasn't always the case with Ritchie. Plus, the material itself is in his comfort zone unlike unfortunate experiments like Swept Away or Sherlock Holmes. I have not seen the French film Wrath of Man remakes, but I'm curious about it. This film is a major accomplishment. How much of that is there in the original? I'm certainly willing to find out.

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