Does Guy Ritchie even know where his strengths and weaknesses lie as a director? When his films work, they tend to be driven by energy, atmosphere, and visual wit, which can sometimes paper over such notable shortcomings as narrative incoherence and idiotic dialogue. Yet Ritchie loves to double down on that narrative and dialogue. He can’t seem to tell a story, yet he keeps trying to tell more and more complicated ones. He can’t seem to create compelling characters or give them meaningful exchanges, yet his tales get more crowded and verbose. Last year gave us the dense, chatty, inert The Gentlemen, which brought Ritchie back to the intricate, multi-character crime dramas on which he initially made his name. Now we get the even more ambitious Wrath of Man, filled with shoot-outs and heists upon heists and reams of obnoxious banter that will make you wonder if sound cinema might have been humanity’s greatest mistake.
It’s odd that Wrath of Man is so alienating — it’s a revenge picture at heart, one of the most visceral of genres. (If the alienation came with a sense of artistic purpose, we might have had something, but here, it just feels like a miscalculation. More on that in a bit.) Jason Statham plays Hill, or “H,” an aloof, mysterious tough guy who starts working for an armored-truck company that was recently hit with a heist that killed two of their drivers and a bystander. We soon learn why H is really here: His own son was that murdered bystander, and he wants revenge. What’s more, H is himself a dangerous criminal — a powerful gangland boss whose own crew, in a rather wild coincidence, just happened to be, on that fateful day, staking out that very same armored truck for a future heist. We learn that he and his men have spent the past few months searching in vain for the killers, upending the underworld in their violent quest, but have failed to find the unknown crew responsible for the death of his son. So now, H has temporarily gone undercover on the right side of the law, lying in wait for the culprits to strike again.
Some chasmic gaps in logic aside, that’s actually a pretty nifty premise for a crime movie. (It’s based loosely on a 2004 French film, called Cash Truck, a.k.a. Le Convoyeur, directed by Nicolas Boukhrief.) And ordinarily, I’d be a sucker for this type of whiskey-sipping, lizard-brain, honor-among-thieves, manly-man bullshit, but Ritchie’s choices — and they are certainly bold choices — repeatedly confound. For all his visual bravado, he doesn’t seem to have any idea where to put the camera to best service a story or a scene. A small but telling example: He shoots the opening heist from the back of the armored truck, with our view of the driver pointedly concealed. Which would lead a viewer to believe that the man’s identity will in some way be significant. No, it’s meaningless. What’s more, shot from that perspective, the scene also winds up being totally incoherent. Admittedly, to preserve the time-juggling plot, some elements of the heist do have to be kept hidden — but Ritchie hides the wrong things. There’s a fine line between enigmatic and confusing, and he repeatedly bulldozes past it. As a result, the movie opens with a blast of muddy annoyance.
A somewhat more worrisome example: You would think that, given his own criminal ways, and given the fact that his own crew was also hoping to rob that truck, H would feel some sense of cosmic guilt over his son’s death. Indeed, you would also think that the rather hilarious aforementioned coincidence regarding two separate crews targeting the same truck would practically mandate such a development — and we do see a scene of H’s wife blaming him for their son’s death. Ritchie shoots it from a distance, in one take, a sure sign of emotional reserve. This should be interesting: H’s own coldness, his dissociation from the consequences of his actions, could serve as an emotional through line in the film, maybe a subtle psychological engine powering his undying crusade for revenge. No such nuance exists, however. Ritchie can’t be bothered. The scene with the wife is a dead end for him, just an item to check off the list. Because, well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?
And then, Christ, there’s the dialogue. The writing in Wrath of Man isn’t just bad. It’s your-co-worker-signed-up-for-a-weekend-drama-workshop bad. Sometimes, the words are merely inane: “You ever thought about, uh, buying a coffee maker?” one guard awkwardly asks the other in the prelude to that opening heist scene. “A coffee maker?” “You know, the one that’s got that froster thing?” “Oh yeah, the frother. I got you.” “That way you can, you know, make your own cappuccino.” Is this supposed to be naturalistic?
Other times, the words are portentous: “What has the world come to? A direct line of evolution from Paleolithic man to a diabetic house husband,” a co-worker observes philosophically to H after a conversation about, uh, Pop-Tarts. And often the lines are just thuddingly obvious: “I don’t care what you guys think. That man’s a dark horse,” another co-worker helpfully observes about H early on. In case we didn’t get it, someone later opines that H isn’t just a man, that he’s “a dark spirit.” Then, a few seconds later, they repeat the line: “A dark fucking spirit.” (The film’s segments are broken into discrete chapters. The title of this chapter? “A Dark Spirit.”) There’s an idea here, of course, about masculinity encircled, about hunters become prey, primitive warriors forced into emasculated domesticity. But one needs more than ideas, and Ritchie keeps failing at the execution. The only thing uniting all this macho hothouse banter is that it’s regularly delivered in such half-hearted fashion that we might wonder if we’re listening to a read-through by mistake.
Was there any way to make such talk convincing? The problem isn’t so much that it’s inauthentic or unrealistic. Quentin Tarantino turned inauthentic, unrealistic crime-movie dialogue into its own art form decades ago, and it’s been clear from the earliest days of Ritchie’s career that the director, with his motormouth gangsters and jigsaw-puzzle structures, has been aping the generational talent who gave us Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and Kill Bill. But Tarantino weaves entire worlds with his dialogue. His ornate exchanges envelop us, and his words have an uncanny ability to turn even uncharismatic actors into momentary stars. Ritchie has the opposite problem: He repeatedly eats away at the charisma of his stacked casts.
Wrath of Man has an impressive supporting cast, but the actors seem adrift with the hapless script (credited to Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson, and Marn Davies). They talk hesitantly and trip over lines, as if they were speaking in phonetics without any idea what’s actually being said. Statham manages to escape mostly unscathed, probably because his character is so quiet. (“You ain’t much for talking, are you, Mary Poppins?”) If nothing else, Ritchie does seem to know how to best utilize him, which not every filmmaker does.
It’s not that Ritchie doesn’t have any talent. He clearly does. He has a great eye and can certainly set a mood. And despite the fact that he seems to keep failing up, he has made some terrific movies: Revolver and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (both flops, admittedly) are top-notch weirdo masterpieces, and there’s enough good stuff in a film like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword to qualify it as an entertaining misfire. Hell, I don’t even entirely hate Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes flicks. But he keeps stepping on his own feet. Wrath of Man could have been salvaged had it delivered on some decent action sequences, but once such sequences come, they tend to be either lifeless or unintelligible or both. Ritchie is good at building up to such scenes, which somehow manages to compound the problem: We keep waiting for that kick-ass climax, the emotional denouement, the moment when everything comes together. But yet again, the director has overpromised and underdelivered. He appears to be his own worst enemy.