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Jason Statham is the Cary Grant who could kick your head off

New film Wrath of Man is a reminder of why Jason Statham is one of the UK’s most popular cinema exports, writes Graeme Virtue.

Despite the remarkable physical resemblance between the two, it seems unlikely Jason Statham will ever win an Oscar. Yet over the course of more than 20 years, the action man with the imposing bald bonce and Desperate Dan chin has become one of the UK’s most popular cinema exports.

Put it down to his work ethic: as well as headlining a reliable stream of exciting and cost-effective beat-’em-ups, Statham has managed to stand out in stuffed blockbuster ensembles like The Expendables and Fast and Furious franchises. It has been a masterclass in crafting an enduring screen image.

Audiences do not check out the new Stath movie to witness a chameleonic performance where the gravelly voiced bruiser disappears into a role. They go to enjoy badass variations on a reassuringly familiar theme. He’s the Cary Grant who could kick your head off.

The latest Statham vehicle, Wrath of Man, cleverly toys with these hard-earned expectations. This mean and moody remake of a 2004 French crime flick originally titled Le Convoyeur (Cash Truck) is centred around a slightly shabby LA armoured car company.

After a surprisingly Bond-like credits sequence, Statham’s taciturn Hill is introduced going through a job interview. Via a convincingly stressed manager (Eddie Marsan), we learn that a recent violent heist has created vacancies for Fortico truck guards; Hill promptly gets hired after barely scraping through some rudimentary driving and shooting tests.

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In a retrograde locker room full of paunchy Fortico lifers and boastful but dim youngsters, Hill – soon rechristened “H” by his likeable training buddy Bullet (Holt McCallany) – keeps his head down but still seems to vibrate with a coiled energy. Is he a single-minded cop in deep cover? A former gang enforcer laying low in witness protection? Maybe a clinical master thief casing the joint? In other words, we are waiting to see H shrug off this straitjacket of passivity. When will we see the real Statham?

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In fairness, it is not long before H demonstrates that he can be calm and incredibly capable in even the most demanding situation. But after that cathartic flurry of violence, Wrath of Man flashes back to flesh out its story.

We learn more about H’s hinterland and important relationships. Key events are replayed from a different viewpoint. There is a literal and bloody trawl through LA’s criminal underbelly.

The film’s admirably scattershot casting adds to the feeling that anything could happen, to anyone, at any time. (As well as veteran faces like Marsan and McCallany, there are roles for Andy Garcia, comedian Rob Delaney, rapper Post Malone and notorious EastEnders villain Alex Ferns, as well as more traditional Hollywood types like Josh Hartnett and Scott Eastwood.)

The gnawing sense of impending doom is heightened by director Guy Ritchie’s decision to parcel out the movie in chapters with ominous titles like A Dark Spirit and Scorched Earth. Wrath of Man is clearly on a death march towards some sort of amoral reckoning, echoed by the omnipresent minor-key churn of Christopher Benstead’s cello-led soundtrack. The result is intense, foreboding and extremely effective. It should really have been called Wrath of Stath.

This clenched-jaw tone might not be for everyone but it does feel like a successful reunion for Statham and Ritchie, who made three films together – including Statham’s fast-talking, star-making 1999 turn in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – before going their separate ways after 2005’s Revolver.

It also feels like a reaction to the current neon-and-nihilism trend in shoot-’emups like Suicide Squad, Army of the Dead and Gunpowder Milkshake where ultra-violence is served up alongside obvious soundtrack needle drops and playground nose-thumbing. If those movies aspire to the aesthetics of brash pop songs, Wrath of Man is aiming for something darkly operatic, and it succeeds.

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After a fitful US release earlier this year, Wrath of Man is heading straight to Amazon Prime Video in the UK. Is that a sign that Statham, who turned 54 in July, could be losing his appeal? It certainly does not seem to have slowed him down. Stath has another movie with Ritchie – spy thriller Operation Fortune – already in the can and is currently working on The Expendables 4, reprising his role as tough-but-sensitive special ops expert Lee Christmas. At this rate, maybe he will get an Oscar some day: a lifetime achievement award for services to action cinema. I’m already imagining a cute little beret on the statuette.

Wrath of Man is on Amazon Prime Video from December 10

Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic

@graemevirtue

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