The self-awareness of Guy Ritchie as a director seems to not be his strong suit; blissfully unaware of what his strengths are and aren’t. When his films work, they usually shine on suave energy or visual wit, which often have to cover up plenty of narrative incoherence and idiotic dialogue. Yet he loves to put a lot of weight on his narratives and dialogue. Last year he delivered the chatty and 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 pages of obnoxious banter that will make you question if the addition of sound to the cinematic form was humanity’s biggest mistake.
Jason Statham stars as Hill, or “H,” a 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. Another point is that H is himself a dangerous criminal — a powerful gangland boss whose own crew, in 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 been searching for the killers for months, but have failed to find anything. So now, H has temporarily gone undercover working for the armored truck company, lying in wait for culprits to strike again. If that sounds broadly familiar to some it’s because it might be — the film is loosely based on the Nicolas Boukhrief’s 2004 French film Le Convoyeur, a.k.a. Cash Truck. And there’s no doubt that this definitely could’ve added up to something if Ritchie didn’t make such confounding choices. For all his freneticism of the past, he doesn’t seem to have any idea where to properly put the camera, even when he decides to change up his visual language. For example, the opening heist is captured in one, locked-down shot from the back of the armored truck, with our view of the driver concealed. Which would lead a viewer to believe that the man’s identity will in some way be significant. But, nope, it’s meaningless. In actuality, the visual incoherence is only there to preserve the time-juggling plot to come, not to provide a sense of visual deliberation. And such staging is seen throughout.
And then there’s the dialogue. Sometimes the words in Wrath of Man are merely inane; like the film’s opening conversation about a cappuccino machine, which is genuinely laughable in how awkward it is. 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 self-parodic in their goofy machismo or 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 declares 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 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 walk-through rehearsal by mistake.
The problem with all this vapid dialogue isn’t so much that it’s inauthentic or unrealistic. Quentin Tarantino turned unrealistic crime-movie dialogue into an art form to itself decades ago, and it’s been clear from the earliest days of Ritchie’s career that the director has been aping him. The thing is, 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 chips 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 (written by 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 unscathed, probably because his character is so reserved.
This isn’t all to say that Ritchie doesn’t have any talent. He has an eye for certain sets of energy. And despite the fact that he seems to be keep failing up, he has made good movies, such as Snatch or The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the latter of which is the kind of odd, urbane studio action film that isn’t seen enough. But over time Ritchie keeps tripping over himself. Wrath of Man could have been salvaged had it delivered on some decent action sequences, but once such sequences come, the tend to be either apathetic or unintelligible. Ritchie is good at building up such scenes, which somehow manages to compound the problem: we keep waiting for the climax, the moment when everything comes together. But yet again, the director has built up only to underdeliver. Obfuscated in almost entirely labored and roundabout ways, Wrath of Man sees Guy Ritchie stifling himself in faux-gravitas and confounding, undercooked decisions to make his film feel secondhand and stagnant.
Wrath of Man is currently playing in Theaters, as of May 7