Guy Ritchie must be stopped

Images courtesy United Artists Releasing.

2/10 Fourteen months into a lockdown that feels like it will never end even as it draws to a close, the world under coronavirus is still uncanny. Masks are still as mandatory as they ever were, work is still remote and the theatrical release schedule is still in a strange state of disarray. Now, the first weekend in May, 13 years after Iron Man established it as Marvel’s signature time slot, is dedicated to people who still think Guy Ritchie is an auteur.

Los Angeles- Security professional Patrick “H” Hill (Jason Statham) begins work at an armored truck company. He is mysterious and aloof with his coworkers, but soon becomes the center of everyone’s attention when he single-handedly slaughters a crew trying to hold up one of his deliveries. Hill’s coworkers eventually begin to speculate that he is some kind of vengeful spirit who had come to them to avenge himself on Los Angeles’ apparently extensive and thriving network of armored truck robbers.

Wrath of Man is another Guy Ritchie Special, a very simple revenge/heist movie overcomplicated into an obnoxious, high-effort Tarantino-Mann-Scorsese wannabe. By my counting, it’s the sixth Guy Ritchie Special of the writer/director/producer’s 12-film career – it’s always incredibly easy to tell when he has a cowriter or his influence is diluted in some way.

The Guy Ritchie Special is characterized by a go-nowhere heist plot that is uninteresting on its own, meant as a framework to be infused with style; a style that it not very stylish, hanging on broken timelines that aren’t organized properly, with motivations and relationships that need to be at the start of scenes kept secret for impotent reveals later, and hackneyed, Tarantino knockoff dialogue, with scenes stretching endlessly as characters strain to find ways to avoid reaching their point; and a grotesque barrage ‘70s era masculism and homosexism, every character existing only for their symbolic relationship to a horrifically outdated masculine code that viewers must fully assume to engage with the film at all and lengthy stretches of dialogue, sometimes what feels like the entire movies, dedicated to characters trying to call each other gay as an insult as inventively as they can. Ritchie has been “the director of Snatch” for 20 years now, and most of the next decade of his work was advertised as “Guy Ritchie’s return to form,” a repeated acknowledgement that never really did return to form – though the real acknowledgement that needs to be made is that Snatch is just not a great movie in the first place.

In Wrath of Man’s case, most of the style seems to be wrapped up in a miserable, grim violin score that is almost constant. It works well enough as an overture for Hill, were he an explicit spirit of vengeance – the character could easily have been written as a ghost, but the movie won’t go all the way there – but all it really does is solidify the sense that nothing is happening and the movie is going nowhere.

Wrath of Man’s timeline is so poorly structured and the plot has so many holes in hindsight that you actually understand what’s going on less as more information it relays.

Wrath of Man struggles mightily to tell its story even beyond the deliberately overcomplicated timeline. Many plot points are revealed so poorly that you understand them, and understand that the movie tried to tell you about them before and failed, as their results roll on the screen. Several plot points are related in off-hand remarks that are both buried in their conversations and not reinforced, and in some cases contradicted, by the visuals, so the conflicts mature before they feel like they’ve been established.

The visuals don’t seem to be interested in communicating anything at all. The camera motif for Wrath of Man is a stationary camera in the center of the scene, which mostly sits still but will sometimes rotate slowly when things get really saucy. The insistent lack of energy starts right from the get-go, with the cold open heist scene shot entirely on a tripod sitting in the middle of the targeted truck. The scene develops so slowly and the compositions the camera holds on are so poor that the whole thing feels less like a choreographed, thought-out one-shot and more like somebody accidentally left the camera on and that footage made it into the final cut by mistake.

The only thing I’m sure of in Wrath of Man as it’s happening is how gross I feel watching it. The physical majority of the dialogue in the first act is dedicated to workplace homosexism and posturing as tests of masculinity. Whenever characters stop probing how much they can insult each other, even the genuine questions are all about wives and love lives – who they’re sleeping with and who they’d be willing to sleep with, and what implications Ritchie means for viewers to take from that, is apparently the only trait any of these characters have.

The premise alone of Wrath of Man lays bare how outdated this style of movie is. The film depicts a thriving network of organized armored truck robbers based in a single major city, with five robberies attempted or completed within the runtime by three crews, and H rips through several more crews in flashbacks before joining the armored truck company. In the real world, the best I can find is from an industry textbook that estimates armored trucks are held up just 70 times per year, an estimate that can only have gone down since it was made in 2011 as crime has moved online and over the phone.

It’s eventually revealed that the main crew Hill is after is a group of former soldiers dissatisfied with their post-military job opportunities, perfectly willing to rob the business owner class and overjoyed at the opportunity to dust off their tactics and maneuvers. This is Wrath of Man’s avenue back into touch with reality, lining up directly against the class inequality the armored truck industry protects and serves, but something tells me this was just Ritchie going out of his way to romanticize the military.

What world is this supposed to be set in that these types of heists are so common and so successful that multiple organized groups of professional criminals who specialize in this can coexist in a single city? What breakdown is happening with this armored truck company and local law enforcement that these things can happen as frequently as they do in Wrath of Man? Every movie requires some degree of suspension of disbelief, but this isn’t a fun disbelief to suspend. It’s a constant effort to join and remain in Ritchie’s alternative universe of stagecoach robbers, torrential homosexism and self-evident biblical overtones, and Wrath of Man in particular tries frequently to shake even viewers who make that effort.

It’s been 25 years. This has to stop! Ritchie demonstrated clear talent in his ‘10s work, when he was frequently accepting writing partners and studio commissions – which notably do not include his Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur movies as both of those properties are in the public domain. I am one of the precious few fans of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, failed franchise starters that seem to have broken Ritchie, as he returned to making Guy Ritchie Specials immediately after.

Will Wrath of Man satisfy people who actually like Guy Ritchie Specials? I have no idea. I don’t understand the appeal at all. In 2004, Matthew Vaughn – a friend of Ritchie who produced his early films – directed Layer Cake, which is everything Ritchie’s movies try desperately to be, fast-paced and fast-talking with expressionistic editing throughout, not just in stretches, always easily intelligible and infused with the Faustian overtones Ritchie can only slap onto his films like stickers. His ideas on masculinity are codified in Michael Mann’s 1995 classic Heat, which perfectly captures both the romance and tragedy of rigid adherence to one’s ideals, while actually expanding on those ideals instead of relying on the audience to transplant their own, in a heist movie setting that seems to understand heists aren’t a viable way of making a living anymore and contains little of the nauseating homosexism that Ritchie insists on filling his movies with.

These two movies, Layer Cake and Heat, make Ritchie’s entire filmography redundant, just watch them instead.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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