Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham have history. From the audacious sucker punch of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, through to Snatch, it’s a pairing which felt almost simpatico in origin. Even the underrated and philosophically hampered RocknRolla might have benefitted from this homegrown export in retrospect. Slick direction, concise story beats and a distinctive line in dialogue have made both men global commodities. One has morphed into a writer/director who’s capable of turning his hand to anything, while Statham has become almost universally bankable. And that’s one reason why Wrath of Man comes with a high degree of expectation from the outset.
Taking its lead from 2004 French film Le Convoyeur, this Guy Ritchie conversion is visually unpacked over roughly two hours. In doing so, the director takes full advantage of his leading man, subverting that natural screen presence to deliver a story of depth. Dialogue is minimal, worldbuilding essential and plot pieces slot together with measured sophistication.
Wrath of Man is cut from a different cloth and Jason Statham knows it. Gone are the gratuitous shirtless shots which have become synonymous with his brand of action flick. At heart, the actor’s H may still be an archetype, leaning more into violence than thoughtful dialogue, but nonetheless this is new territory for him.
With a ledger of solid character actors at his disposal, Guy Ritchie has a field day. Josh Hartnett, Holt McCallany and Eddie Marsan feature in an ensemble who only ever add value. Smart-mouthed macho types and buttoned-down pen pushers stand side by side, in a security firm set-up which plays an integral part early on. An opening act feeds into stereotype, acknowledges genre tropes and forges a furrow that many audiences will recognize before taking a darker turn.
There are elements of Man on Fire, soundtrack nods to Luc Besson’s Leon and even touches of Jodie Foster flick Inside Man. However, what keeps this film on track in every sense is Statham. Although fist fights and martial arts are his bread and butter, Wrath of Man sees him portray someone who feels beyond redemption. As puzzle pieces come together, it’s clear that this is a guy who knows no boundaries. Single-minded vendettas, calculated retribution and a clarity of purpose are the defining characteristics of a character who feels overtly human.
In that definitive publicity poster up above, Statham is posed in a sharp suit with bloody knuckles. No clearer indication is necessary in establishing the tone for this film. Here, the hands not only get dirty but they stay that way. Beneath the surface of this slick action thriller beats the heart of a character piece. There’s a sense that H comes with baggage from the outset and empathy for an audience member will cost. Our decision to feel compassion for the actions which take place makes each person complicit in crossing that line.
There’s no denying the collateral damage which is unleashed, as tensions ramp up and the actor moves further out of his comfort zone. Ritchie is intentionally subverting expectations, playing with audience assumptions and asking his leading man for trust. It’s a cinematic trick which pays off, as he perfectly melds elements from his back catalogue with the best parts of his partner in crime.
With character names like Boy Sweat and Bullet, Wrath of Man is disarmingly mainstream yet remains subtly focused on human frailties. Greed, avarice and power are all tied up in a story driven by character with an action star at its centre. There’s a day one montage training, pool table bar banter and a post-coital bedroom scene before things get tangled. Autopsy notes make for a macabre plot beat, set pieces play out from multiple points of view and violence is intentionally R-rated.
Ritchie is a visual storyteller and exposition is kept to a minimum. There’s no playing to the crowd and he ensures his leading man keeps it reined in. There’s also no needless posturing, no wry smiles or anything else which might distract. In the final forty minutes, audiences will be wrong-footed a number of times, as past and present work in unison to elevate the story. Payoffs are unconventional, hero conventions are kicked off course and closure is questionable. In short, this is a film well worth the investment for those who like their thrillers hard-boiled and action-packed.