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I Am Wrath

D: Chuck Russell / 91m

Cast: John Travolta, Christopher Meloni, Amanda Schull, Sam Trammell, Patrick St. Esprit, Rebecca De Mornay, Asante Jones, Paul Sloan, Luis Da Silva Jr, Robert Forte Shannon III, James Logan

You’re an ex-Black Ops veteran turned law-abiding car engineer about to work for Honda (probably). You come home from a job interview and meet up with your wife who’s working on an independent review of a proposed water pipeline that’s being backed by the state governor. Both of you are approached by a shady looking guy who wants help paying his parking ticket. You warn him off but he gets offended. The next thing you know, you’ve been hit over the head and are on the floor, then the shady looking guy pulls out a gun and shoots your wife. She dies instantly. Thanks to your knowledge of cars, you recognise the sound of the car engine the shady looking guy and his two accomplices drive off in. Later, at the police station, the detectives assigned to your wife’s murder are sympathetic and helpful. Even later, those same detectives tell you they’ve got someone who may have been involved. At a line-up, you pick out the shady looking guy thanks to the distinctive fly tattoo he has near his right eye. And right then and there, the rug gets pulled out from under you: the detectives don’t have enough evidence to arrest him. The shady looking guy goes free. Now what do you do?

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Well, if you’re John Travolta, and the movie you’re starring in is called I Am Wrath, then you tool up and go after the man who killed your wife, and his two accomplices. But what is it that prompts you to do this? Is it a profound sense of justice needing to be done? Is it anger and a need for revenge? Is it because you’re fed up with leading a “normal” life and you want to get back to killing bad guys? Or is it because a Bible the priest at your wife’s funeral gave you, lands open at a particular place (Jeremiah 6:11 to be precise) after you’ve thrown it to the floor? And is it because the phrase “But I am full of the wrath of the LORD, and I cannot hold it in” is featured there, and it seems like God’s giving you permission to go out and kill some people? Well, praise the Lord. Seems he doesn’t mind people committing murder after all.

This is exactly how Travolta’s character, called Stanley Hill (and since when did Travolta ever look like a Stanley?), comes to make the momentous decision to take the law into his own hands and seek vengeance on shady looking guy and his pals. If you’re in any doubt as to how good or bad this movie is at this point, then rest assured the scene with the Bible is as far from cinematic gold as it’s possible to get. Travolta hurls the good book to the floor. It lands cover side down and open at the aforementioned passage. Travolta looks over at it. He gets up, a look of consternation on his face. As he approaches the Bible he begins to look as if he already knows what he’s going to read when he picks it up. And once he does, there’s no doubt: it’s a sign! And he knew it was a sign! Stanley has been given a sign from God (even though he’s not a praying man)! Say Hallelujah everyone!

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Unfortunately for I Am Wrath, any further religious overtones or connotations are abandoned with undue haste. Save an artless confessional scene much later on, the script and direction steer well clear of any religious undertones and concentrate on Travolta – aided by Meloni as his pal from their Black Ops days – and his mission to avenge his wife’s death. Along the way he discovers a conspiracy that involves the police, a local crime lord, and – shock! horror! – the state governor. What could have been an intriguing, finely balanced exercise in the nature of faith versus morality, instead becomes yet another tired actioner where one man and his friend take on a whole bunch of bad guys, break every law going in the process, and are cheered as heroes for “taking out the trash” (quite literally at one point).

First optioned as a vehicle for Nicolas Cage back in 2012, and with William Friedkin set to direct, the project derailed six months later. Watching this finished result, it’s hard not to see why, as it’s difficult to tell if Paul Sloan’s script – he also plays crime lord Lemi – is the same now as it was then, free from any revisions or amendments. It’s a screenplay that signposts everything so far in advance, that even the most naïve or inexperienced of viewers would have no trouble predicting each step or move made by the characters before they happen. From Travolta reassuring his daughter (Schull) that the drive-by shooting that nearly killed her will be the only time she’s put in danger (yeah, right!), to the police (Trammell, Jones) being in the pocket of both the crime lord and the governor, to the epilogue that apparently sees Travolta at the mercy of a “surprise” (not really) gunman, I Am Wrath diligently avoids doing anything that might be construed as original or different.

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Those with fond memories of The Blob (1988), or The Mask (1994), might be encouraged by the presence of Chuck Russell in the director’s chair, but any hopes that  the fourteen year hiatus since The Scorpion King (2002) has left him pumped and raring to go should be abandoned from the start. It’s clear that Russell is just a director for hire, and his bland, uninspired approach to the material reflects this idea all too well. He’s unable to motivate his cast either, with Travolta going through the motions, Meloni playing the sidekick with a (much needed) sense of humour, Schull reduced to creating a character out of whatever reaction she’s required to have from scene to scene, St. Esprit oozing venom like it’s expected of him whatever the circumstances, Trammell and Jones playing detectives who don’t have an ounce of depth between them, and Sloan snarling away at everyone in lieu of providing a proper characterisation. It’s all as bad as it looks, dispiriting too, and without even a sense of its own absurdity to redeem matters.

Rating: 3/10 – another nail in the coffin of Travolta’s career, I Am Wrath is disjointed, mediocre, passionless, and calamitous in equal measure, with lacklustre direction, a weak script, perfunctory performances, and woeful continuity (look for Travolta’s disappearing/reappearing forehead contusions); when movies look and sound this stale, you have to wonder what could possibly have motivated everyone to have taken part, the answer to which would probably make for a better movie than this one could ever be.