“From paleolithic man to diabetic house-husband….”

That’s how one of the Many Manly Men that make up 19 of 20 important characters in director Guy Ritchie’s Wrath of Man describes a perceived crisis of masculinity early in this film.

And it’s just one of many lines that highlight what the film acknowledges as the real problem: a world in which too many men think that a capacity for coercive force is masculinity’s defining trait, or — worse — masculinity’s raison d’être.

Back in the ’80s, we watched Bruce Willis’s John McClane knock off one bad guy after another and he seemed so cool, seemed to have so much fun doing it. Today, we watch this generation’s Bruce Willis picking off the bad guys with pinpoint shooting, and he seems absolutely miserable, a role model for nobody.

And that, I think, is a certain kind of progress.

The man known as “H” (Jason Statham) may look like he’s down for the count. But no — his eyes are open. He can see the face of the man who shot him. He won’t forget.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed Die Hard so much I saw it enough to be able to recite the dialogue while it played. It remains the most impressively designed, efficiently scripted, and entertaining cops-and-robbers movie I’ve ever seen.

But I’m increasingly convinced that the glorification of McClane-types on the big screen have deceived American men into thinking that that a cocky, gun-toting vigilante is basically the Masculine Ideal — a god who has every right to pass life-and-death judgement. And the faster we can dismantle that archetype, the better. It will take generations for American men to grow up, learn what it really means to “be a man,” discover what real strength and courage and leadership looks like, and put aside their childish attachment to deadly devices. In short, my ongoing enthusiasm for Die Hard is showing me that I am complicit in the celebration of a toxic genre.

Wrath of Man is different — somewhat. It’s a film in which there are no good guys — just guys who commit violence, some for arguably nobler reasons than others. And even those lesser villains, seemingly the best options if anyone’s going to be the last men standing, are already too hollowed out (“the hollowed men”?) by violence before this narrative even begins. If they win, they won’t enjoy their victory. Any peace they ever had is gone for good.

If you’re up for a very dark, very violent movie about armored-truck teams and violent mercenaries/ex-security contractors, you may find, as I did, that Ritchie’s latest somehow overcomes its weaker points — screenwriting, action choreography — and becomes surprisingly compelling. It may not be the smartest film in its genre, but it comes with a flicker of conscience. That’s worth something.

It follows Patrick Hill (Statham) — who is quickly branded with the nickname “H” because, as Christopher Nolan seems to have noticed, our leading men don’t really need names anymore. This is the age of avatars and RPGs, and so who needs a distinctive character name when movies are more about experiences than narratives? Anyway, do I seem distracted from offering a synopsis? I am — the story is not particularly interesting.

Wait, whoa… Josh Hartnett is in this? As the guy who’s too shaky to be good with a gun?

Suffice it to say… the iron-jawed action figure ‘H’ gets a job with Fortico Security in spite of his low firearm test scores, but then quickly silences any skeptics by snapping into a sort of firefight-#BeastMode when one of the company’s armored cars gets attacked. ‘H’ isn’t liked by his coworkers, but they’re in awe of him after he dispatches the attackers with the efficiency and accuracy of John Wick.

It’s not hard to see that ‘H’ has taken this job for a reason. And soon we learn the unsurprising truth: Someone dear to him was killed during one of these truck heists, and he’s hoping to track down the guilty party by riding along and carefully digging around for evidence of an inside job. You can see where this is going. But it takes a while to get there, with ‘H’ fishing for red herrings that take us through one underworld amusement park ride after another until he finds the guilty party pretty much where we expect him to.

So, no… I’m not here to sing the story’s praises. There’s a lot about Wrath of Man that feels routine in a Training Day-meets-Heat-meets-John Wick kind of way.

Nor am I here to celebrate its performances. Statham is perfect for this role: He has the sturdy physique of a Bruce Willis action figure, an irresistible double-furrow between his eyebrows that represents his conflicted spirit, and he makes gunplay look like an Olympic event. But you’ll notice I’m not bothering to name the supporting cast — it seems to me that those characters are blanks that could have been filled by just about any Hollywood action standbys.

Mindhunter‘s Holt McCallany plays “Bullet,” the armored-car-duty teacher who raises up Statham’s Patrick Hill in the way that he should go. But it’s clear that the name “Bullet” should belong, in this case, to the student.

I’m not here to celebrate Guy Ritchie either. I admired some of his craftsmanship here, primarily for how different it feels from the celebratory violence of his past work. I never feel disoriented by the backward-and-forward time shifts or by the action scenes. Your armored-truck mileage may vary: Note that the perceptive and persuasive Bilge Ebiri at Vulture had a very different experience than I did. “There’s a fine line,” he says, “between enigmatic and confusing, and [Ritchie] here repeatedly bulldozes past it.” And later, “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.”

I do echo Ebiri’s impatience with the film’s cringe-worthy dialogue — “macho hothouse banter … regularly delivered in such half-hearted fashion that we might wonder if we’re listening to a read-through by mistake.” There’s even a variation here of a line that I hate from Tony Scott’s Man on Fire, a quip about a notorious killer: “Let the painter paint!” (At its worst, this movie veers too close to the lurid nature of Man on Fire’s revenge plot. That’s a film I sincerely disrespect.)

You can always measure the intensity of Patrick Hill’s angst by the depth of the furrows in his brow.

Nevertheless, there’s enough here to earn my disclaimer-laden recommendation.

It’s Wrath of Man‘s haunting sense of weariness and despair that intrigues me most. For the kind of story it is — a story about how men who have signed up for and participated in too much violence can end up knowing no other language but violence — I find it intriguingly conflicted.  This isn’t overly aestheticized with visual cleverness, slo-mo special effects, or tongue-in-cheek Tarantino smart-assery. In other words, it doesn’t try to excuse its violence by making it fun. This is more in the territory of Michael Mann’s Heat or John Frankenheimer’s Ronin, where we’re supposed to be appalled by the firepower. (Let me be clear: I much prefer Heat, and this movie’s Relentless Killing Machine protagonist is too superhero-ish for me to take him as seriously as I do Michal Mann’s corrupt cops and impressive robbers.) I admire its ultimate refusal to glorify any of its characters, even if one’s sharpshooting skills are staged to impress.

The overbearing tone of it — like Christopher Benstead’s annoyingly relentless and repetitive score — makes it one of those “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny” films. And everyone involved is already well on their way along the dark path as the story begins. If anyone comes away from this film thinking these gun-loving guys are role models, then they brought problems with them to the movie, problems that are already dangerous.

I watched this on the same day I saw Robert Aldrich’s noir classic Kiss Me Deadly for the first time, and while both films are terribly disturbing, they both ring far too true about the world we live in and America’s self-destructive addiction to toxic masculinity. That term gets tossed around a lot these days, I know. But I think it’s a meaningful term, and one that relentlessly prevents boys and men alike from discovering and fulfilling their potential. It keeps us from learning that it takes far greater courage and strength to pursue the path of Love and Humility and Service than the ultimately corrupting path of Control and Arrogance. You’ll only find men who wield guns making meaningful progress on one of those two paths.

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