Wrath of Man (2021)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

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fourstar

I’m not sure exactly why Guy Ritchie’s latest foray into highly stylized action cinema, a big screen adaptation of the 1960s television show The Man from U.N.C.L.E., has more or less flopped at the box office. Personally, I might at least be able to attribute my own reluctance to catch up with the picture to a little bit of superspy fatigue. So far this year the cinemas have been bombarded from the superspy likes of Kingsman: Secret Service, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, American Ultra, and a spoof of the genre simply called Spy. That’s not even taking into account the upcoming Stephen Spieldberg/Tom Hanks collab Bridge of Spies & the latest James Bond feature Spectre. If 2014 was the Year of the Doppelgänger, 2015 is certainly the Year of the Spy & The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘s returns may have suffered somewhat from a crowded market. It’s by no means been a devastating financial blow like Ritchie’s disastrous Madonna vehicle Swept Away, but it has struggled to earn back its $75 million budget, earning less than half of that sum in its U.S. theater run. What’s even more difficult to account for, however, is it the film’s middling reviews. I’m no Guy Ritchie fanboy, having seen less than half of the films that he’s released, but U.N.C.L.E. was easily the most fun I’ve ever had with the director’s sleek action movie aesthetic, however delayed my trip to the theater may have been.

Opening with a traditional James Bond credits sequence populated with sultry soul music, harsh red hues, and Cold War/Atomic Age stock footage, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. maintains a distinct sense of 60s-tinged, smart mouthed swank throughout its entire runtime. Sometimes its modernizing of the 60s superspy genre feels true to its sources. CGI-aided car chases work similarly to the manually sped-up action scenes of yesteryear. The classy noir lighting of 60s fare is brought into the 2010s with rainbow-colored lens flairs. Throwaway lines about “Hitler’s favorite rocket scientist”, enriched uranium, and smuggled Nazi gold all feel native to the era it’s evoking. At other times this modernization can work a little too much like borrowed Tarantino cool, especially in small details like the yellow grindhouse subtitles and the pop music & whistling on the film’s soundtrack, but even Tarantino borrowed those elements from older sources, so the similarities are more than forgiveable. What most distinguishes The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from, say, an Inglourious Basterds, is its calmly restrained chase of a smarmy, handsome aesthetic instead of Tarantino’s cartoonishly over-the-top tendency towards excess (which, of course, has its own distinct set of charms).

Speaking of calm restraint, just as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. remains poised & smugly handsome throughout its runtime, its American spy lead Solo (expertly played by Henry “Man of Steel” Cavill) prides himself on never losing his cool. As the CIA operative/international playboy Solo butts heads with quick-tempered KGB agent Illya (Armie “Winklevoss Twins” Hammer) & sexy German mechanic Gaby (Alicia “Ex Machina” Vikander) on a multinational mission to prevent a Nuclear Holocaust, he tries his damnedest to remain as coolly suave as if he were simply enjoying cocktail hour. A lot of humor is derived from watching Solo & Illya try to out-macho each other in activities as disparate as fistfights in restrooms to arguing over women’s fashion. Most of the film’s comedy, however, is dependent upon the sexual tension between all three leads & their escaped Nazi enemies (including a young married couple who look like an evil combination of Jason Schwartzman & Freddie Mercury and a character Tilda Swinton could play in her sleep). There’s an onslaught of innuendo in the film’s script, like when the art thief Solo offers to “fill the gaps” in a woman’s collection or to “take bottom” when divvying up which locks he & Illya will pick. By the time characters are nonchalantly delivering lines like “Want to have a go?” & “I wish I could stay to finish you off myself” the film’s earned enough goodwill to evoke full belly laughs instead of the light chuckles the first couple sexual quips elicit. Armie Hammer also gets great comedic mileage from the KGB hothead Illya, especially in the way he sweetly refers to mechanic Gaby as his “little chop shop girl” & the comically American Solo as “cowboy.”

No matter what the reasons for The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘s muted reception, I do feel the film has been a little shortchanged & I regret waiting so long to catch it in the theater. It has a distinct sense of smart, sexy glamour to it that suggests an alternate universe where Mad Men was an action-packed world of superspies instead of a slowburn of an existential crisis. The film’s sexual quips, use of wrestling as foreplay, gender reversal of the damsel in distress trope, and genre-faithful plot riddled with doublecrossings & double-doublecrossings all make for a fun, sleek picture that I’m sure will have a second life on Netflix & the like even if it’s not currently doing so hot in the theater. On top of these surface pleasures, Guy Ritchie makes some satisfyingly unique visual choices such as mounting cameras to the bows of boats, the fronts of safes, and car door mirrors for a effect that feels highly stylized, but genuinely earned. He’s also confident enough in his screenplay to imply offscreen action instead of showing every little explosive detail & to allow certain scenes to breathe for maximum effect, such as a particularly sublime moment when Solo is enjoying a picnic as his partner fends for his life in the background. As far as 60s throwback action & Nazi-killing revenge fantasies go, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is about as handsome & as confident as they come. If you’re like me & have been putting it off due to superspy fatigue, I’d suggest giving it a shot somewhere down the road. It has enough universal appeal that you’re likely to enjoy yourself.

-Brandon Ledet