Opening Friday in theaters, “Wrath of Man” is the 12th film by English director Guy Ritchie, and his fourth with actor Jason Statham.
The pair rocketed to fame together in their first movies, 1998’s “Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels,” and 2000’s “Snatch.” Those wild, Tarantino-inspired crime films came packed with colorful characters, delightfully twisty plots and slick, adrenaline-fueled pacing.
Few would argue that Ritchie has made anything quite as good since. “Wrath of Man” is almost the hoped-for return to form, but it’s also missing something.
It would be a disservice to describe very much of the plot, but it starts, strikingly, with an armored car robbery.
The camera is inside the truck, and we listen to the banal conversation, about a squeaky door, cold coffee, etc., between the two drivers up front.
Through the windshield, we witness a roadblock, followed by a welding torch penetrating the door, and then an incendiary device tossed inside.
The drivers are executed, but so is a third person, an innocent bystander.
Then we meet Patrick Hill (Statham), soon to be known by the nickname “H.” He applies for a job at the Fortico armored car company.
He has good references, and seems qualified. An older driver “Bullet” (Holt McCallany) takes him through the training program, and he barely passes his gun test.
The other drivers — including “Boy Sweat Dave” (Josh Hartnett) — rib the newbie mercilessly, and H takes it in stride. However, when his truck faces an attempted robbery, he quickly and effortlessly dispatches the robbers, without wasting a bullet.
He becomes something of a hero in the office, but remains unmoved. His boss (Eddie Marsan) starts to think he might be crazy.
That feeling escalates when another robbery attempt occurs. The crooks simply get a look at H and run away.
Since this is Statham, it’s obvious there’s something more to H than meets the eye. Soon the movie shifts gears to let us in on what it is.
It jumps back in time, twice, to the opening robbery attempt. We learn H is seeking revenge. But his target, or targets, isn’t among the usual suspects, and seems nearly impossible to track down.
A few more time-jumps shifts focus to different characters, and soon a linear story unfolds, leading up to a showdown between H and the person who did him dirty.
Coming from the school of Tarantino, Ritchie knows how to handle violence. Far more than just the typical shaky-cam, choppy editing and lack of concern for human life, “Wrath of Man” makes its violence cinematic; it moves, excites and shocks.
A remake of a 2004 French film, “Cash Truck,” the plot of “Wrath of Man” (which is based on the original screenplay by Nicolas Boukhrief and Éric Besnard) comes out impressively clear, despite the flip-flops in time. The structure builds surprises into what otherwise would be a straightforward revenge movie.
But it doesn’t have the sparkle that “Lock, Stock…” and “Snatch” did. Perhaps it’s because Ritchie is 20 years older and may take things more seriously, or because death in this one is given a certain gravity.
The dialogue here sounds a bit too practiced; the supposed zippy locker-room banter between the armored car drivers feels like an improv class.
Arguably, the most ill-fitting element is Statham. Throughout his career and 40-plus features, he has established a strong screen persona.
With his growling, streetwise English accent and burly bulldog physique, he’s often a lone wolf with a righteous sense of duty. But he’s also funny, trading nasty barbs with worthy partners, like Stephen Graham in “Snatch,” Dwayne Johnson in “Hobbs & Shaw,” or even flat-out killing it in comedies like “Crank” or “Spy.”
In “Wrath of Man,” he barely speaks, and never cracks a smile. His mission comes from a place of hellish hatred, and there’s no place for joy.
Even weirder, the movie gives him a position of authority, with his subordinates devoted to him, but also terrified, constantly walking on eggshells.
In that cool robbery sequence, Statham grumbles “let me handle this” before doing his familiar thing, but in later sections, he stands, grim-faced, as lackeys do the work, and it doesn’t feel right.
Maybe “Wrath of Man” would be better for Liam Neeson, or even Brad Pitt, who, in “Snatch,” stole all of his scenes as the unintelligible bare-fist boxer Mickey O’Neil.
As these “what ifs” don’t serve any movie, let’s just say that “Wrath of Man” is nearly there, with sturdy construction and solid storytelling. Regardless of whether Statham was right for the job, he is always worth a watch.
Perhaps next time, though, there could be a bit less “wrath” and a bit more “man.”
Wrath of Man
Starring: Jason Statham, Holt McCallany, Jeffrey Donovan, Josh Hartnett
Written by: Guy Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson, Marn Davies
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes