I’ve been warming up to Jason Statham’s appeal as a post-90s Action Star in recent years, starting with his self-parodic roles in films like Spy and then doubling back to catch up with his more sincerely over-the-top schlock in titles like The Transporter 2 (a personal fav). In all that belated good will for the barroom brawling brute, I had forgotten why I was so behind on the Statham action canon in the first place: his collaborations with Guy Ritchie. Snatch & Lock, Stock were dual star-makers for both Statham & Richie (with the help of already-established celebrities like Brad Pitt), but they never held much appeal for me as overly gruff, self-serious muscle mags in motion. I like the idea of Statham continuing the tradition of the Stallone/Van Damme/Schwarzenegger action hero archetype into the 21st Century, but his star vehicles always lose that Old World luster whenever Richie’s at the wheel (or whenever similar snoozers like The Bank Job ape Ritchie’s style).
2021’s Wrath of Man is a harsh reminder of just how efficiently Guy Richie can drain the fun out of a Jason Statham action vehicle by focusing on style & posturing instead of the action itself. It starts with an excellent meathead action cinema premise, with Statham taking a job far beneath his mysterious supersolider skills as a driver for an armored cash truck company. After thwarting several cash-delivery heist jobs with shocking tact & brutality, it becomes apparent that he’s hiding major details from his past & his motives for taking such a nondescript job. The movie loses all momentum when Richie doubles back to fill in those missing details, scrambling the chapters of its story like so many half-assed Pulp Fiction knockoffs that littered video store shelves in the 1990s. What should be a half-paragraph of dialogue in which Statham confesses the twisted path that landed him behind the steering wheel & gun trigger instead eats up two-thirds of the runtime, often removing Statham from the story entirely to detail the lives & motives of his crime-world enemies. Ritchie thinks he’s being clever by chopping up & re-arranging the story this way, but I guarantee Wrath of Man would’ve been 100x more exciting as straightforward, Transporter-style action schlock about an undercover badass with a dangerous day job.
I had high hopes for Wrath of Man as a mean, oblivious action flick in its opening act, as Statham is getting acquainted with his instantly, insanely hostile coworkers. The film starts off as the kind of quippy, aggro muscle show that’s so homophobic it’s blatantly homoerotic – wherein real tough guys with nicknames like “Boy Sweat” and “Sticky John” constantly make threatening jokes about each other’s dicks & buttholes. It’s a miscalculated attempt at “witty” Shane Black-style dialogue, but that kind of homoerotic homophobia banter plays like a relic from an earlier, worse era that’s somehow adorably quaint in a modern context. The film works best when it completely lacks self-awareness of its own cultural obsoletion in that way. The opening credits look like concept art for a late-90s Godsmack album, proudly displaying illustrations of flames, wolves, and fallen angels that you’d expect to find in the flash-art binders of your city’s worst tattoo shop. Statham is introduced to his coworkers with the codename “H, like the bomb or Jesus H.” A spooky Johnny Cash remix haunts the soundtrack as if it’s somehow still 2004. This is a dour, self-serious film from the start, but at least there’s a shamelessness & authenticity to it in its earliest stretch. Then Ritchie ruins the vibe by pretending what he’s making is cleverer than it is (or ever needed to be).
Wrath of Man is neither great, nor terrible, nor much of anything at all. I still have yet to see a Jason Statham action vehicle that satisfies like the first two Transporter films (nor a cash-truck heist film more fun than The Lavender Hill Mob), but I don’t think it’s the actor’s fault. We’ve gotten to the point where American movie studios don’t make genuine Action Star Showcases anymore, so we have to settle for jokey, self-aware “subversions” of the format like Spy, Hobbs & Shaw, Crank, etc. It’s unlikely that this era of mainstream filmmaking could ever produce something purely, obliviously schlocky enough to register as Statham’s Commando, his Hard Target, his First Blood Part II: Rambo. The worst thing Wrath of Man does is briefly teasing that possibility, then devolving into just Another Guy Ritchie Movie.