I saw the new Guy Ritchie movie, Wrath of Man, and I liked it but had some issues, mainly with the whole “revenge” plot–about which I won’t say much til after the break cuz it’s ultimately worth seeing; Ritchie’s got a knack for labyrinthine storytelling and I think this is one of his better displays of it–but the premise, essentially, has Jason Statham pursuing a group of bandits (we’ll call them “bandits”) because he’s looking for revenge.
We don’t quite know what for.
Then, after a while, we learn what for. And it’s suitably bad.
You’d want revenge too.
And here’s where the slight spoiler comes in, after the section break below the next couple paragraphs, although it’s really not that much of a spoiler, because you wouldn’t see the movie if you didn’t kind of anticipate this.
Here’s the spoiler–and, after the spoiler, my problem.
At the end of the movie, the protagonist gets his revenge.
And I mean, like, the very end of the movie. Which I think is a good choice on Ritchie’s part, harkening back to a simpler time in filmmaking, the ‘50s and thereabouts.
Statham wants revenge, Statham gets revenge–time to go home.
Bob le Flambeur comes to mind: a heist movie that ends when the heist ends.
But also, after Statham’s moved heaven and earth to get his revenge, after legions of people have been killed in pursuit of that revenge….he kills the guy he wanted to kill.
And now the guy’s dead. Just like all those other people.
But his death hasn’t restored anything to Statham. Nor has it really prevented anything awful.
Then I thought, Why am I not bothered by this in other revenge movies? And I think the issue is that, with big-budget revenge flicks, part of the goal is to make our hero totally likeable. Which means making the hero totally justified. What that means is that she or he isn’t on a revenge mission–it means they’re setting out to stop an already dangerous person, someone who poses a threat to civilians, and against whom they just happen to have a major personal grudge.
So it’s plain-ol’ American heroism, with a savory gloss of vengeance.
It’s what makes O Ren Ishii so formidable in Kill BIll Vol. 1, and Bud so pathetic in Kill BIll Vol. 2: both of them, as Bud says himself, deserve to die for what they’ve done to the Bride–but since O Ren Ishii is a crimelord, the governing entity of a huge murderous gang, it becomes the most delicious and prolonged of the Bride’s revenginations.
It’s the one that makes her the most heroic.
(Although: one of the major points in Debriefing the President, a slim book about the CIA’s interrogation of Saddam Hussein after his capture in 2003: sometimes the elimination of a crime- or warlord creates a power vacuum that ushers in something worse; in the case of Saddam’s toppling, as CIA analyst John Nixon suggests, the power vacuum created an opening for ISIS. It’s possible that, in killing O Ren Ishii, the Bride initiated a power vacuum that made for unfathomably violent gang wars–which incidentally would be an interesting premise for Vol. 3.)
Here’s the thing: Statham, in Wrath of Man. wants to kill this one particular guy. This guy belongs to the aforementioned group of truck-robbing bandits.
The reason: he killed Statham’s teenage son.
But he killed Statham’s son in a panic. Cold-blooded, yes, but self-preserving. And since Statham’s character is himself a truck-robbing bandit, it lends to reason that he, too, is subject to moments of panic in which he does something abhorrent.
That the revenge-chasing hero of a shoot-em-up action movie might be something of a hypocrite, is what I’m getting at.
Also, if what he’s really looking to do is make this guy suffer, he doesn’t need to kill him.
Case in point: Goodfellas.
Which I imagine you’ve seen.
In Goodfellas, after the mobsters pull off a successful heist (I forget the details), Robert De Niro’s character tells everyone not to spend the money because it’ll attract government attention.
Let some time pass, is what he says. Spend it on essentials.
Then one of the mobsters shows up at a party driving a brand new car, and his girlfriend’s wearing a mink coat.
De Niro flies off the handle.
Well, something similar happens in Wrath of Man.
The bandits, without Statham, pull off a Big Job. They each walk away with a ton of money. And the Boss Bandit gives the same warning:
Don’t spend the money for a while, or the IRS is gonna notice.
Well, remember the wild card we were talking about? The dude Statham’s tryna kill?
That guy goes out and blows his money.
Buys a motorcycle and shit. A nice loft.
And therein lies part of my hangup: if Statham had not chased this guy down and killed him, it begs to reason that, given his flagrancy, this dude would have raised a zillion red flags, would’ve attracted the FBI and IRS, and would likely have spent his life either (1) on the run, or (2) in a maximum security penitentiary, probably in solitary confinement given that, by film’s end, this guy’s become a mass-murderer with zero control of his temper.
I mean, even when Statham shows up to kill the guy in his loft, there are bags of cash, tens of millions of dollars, just lyin around like Scrooge McDuck’s goldpile. It’s ridiculous. This guy is going to get caught.
And normally I’d say that such a scenario makes for an interesting meditation on revenge. Cuz Ritchie’s a smart filmmaker (I know he gets shit for being a kinda chest-puffing troglodytic toff guy, but he’s obviously a very clever storyteller). I don’t think it’s beyond him to make a revenge movie that meditates on the subject.
Here’s what that meditation, in Wrath of Man, might suggest: even though Statham knows that this meddlesome bandit will suffer a worse fate in prison if left to his own devices, Statham wants the revenge to be his, and so he basically gives the bandit an “easy out” by offing him with a couple gunshots, rather than letting him languish for decades in a tiny box.
Except there’s nothing in the movie to suggest real inquiry. Y’know?
If this were a Steven Segal vehicle or even a late Van Damme picture I probably wouldn’t get all laced up in the spaghetti like this; but, again, Ritchie’s a smart filmmaker, and I was so enchanted by The Gentlemen last year (though I actively lament the imaginative paucity of not just its title, but its poster; and good lord do I detest the macho pretension inherent to such a title as Wrath of Man, ugh) that, while he delivered on his trademark labyrinthine storytelling, I thought there was some empty-headedness about theme in this case, which is unfortunate, cuz there’da been gold in them hills.
Otherwise, as concerns Wrath of Man: terrific. Loved it. A very conventional crime flick done with style–and, in that respect, I think this movie works as Ritchie’s palate cleanser following The Gentlemen, which is about as Guy Ritchie a movie as Ritchie could Ritch.
What he’s doing here is taking an unremarkable story and applying style, thereby reminding us that there’s often less to a story’s content than there is to its telling.