John Travolta and his immovable face takes on a role designed for Nicolas Cage in the 2016 thriller I Am Wrath. Directed by Chuck Russell from a screenplay by Yvan Gauthier and Paul Sloan, this is a fairly standard actioner for the straight-to-video market.
The picture was initially announced as a Cage project, with director William Friedkin attached. Things fell apart and the project was shelved until Russell and Travolta picked it out of the trash. It is easy to see I Am Wrath as a Cage film or even as a direct-to-video Steven Seagal vehicle, which makes it an interesting project for Vinnie Barbarino.
Travolta stars as Stanley Hill. He returns home from a trip to California and meets his wife (Rebecca De Mornay) at the airport. She is killed by a gang of thugs, who make off with her purse. Stanley is stunned by the attack and closes himself off from his family, including his daughter Abbie (Amanda Schull). He goes to the police, but they do nothing to put away the brutes behind the crime.
Stanley, who just so happens to be a former Special Ops dude, teams up with former partner Dennis (Christopher Meloni) to get his revenge. They track down the thugs, but find deeper levels of systemic corruption. The governor (Patrick St. Esprit) and the police detective (Sam Trammell) may be in cahoots, plus there are other problems afoot.
I Am Wrath opens with a siege of news footage about gangs and gun violence, with documentary-style shootings flashing across the screen. News anchors claim a rise in violence, while the illustrious Governor Meserve suggests that crime is actually on the decline thanks to his administration.
It’s hard to say this wash of violence goes anywhere meaningful, apart from the not-so-subtle suggestion that Travolta and Meloni play “good guys with guns.” The insistence that some sort of systemic corruption is allowing the gangs to prosper underlines the point, confirming that well-trained but regular individuals can take on the bad guys.
Of course, this is typical vigilante fare. It’s Death Wish for 2016, with cute text messages popping up across the screen and Travolta sometimes sporting a hoodie. Cinematographer Andrzej Sekuła, who shot the star for a career-revitalizing turn in Pulp Fiction, knows how to detain the peculiarity of Travolta’s face.
And what a face. There are moments when the protagonist looks surreal, like a plastic instrument of death. There are other moments that find him glowering, with just a small adjustment of light facilitating the change in the changeless countenance.
It’s for the best that Travolta has Meloni handle any personality-based heavy lifting, as his Stanley has a tough time mustering any emotion. He tries to squeeze out some grief when his wife is brutally stabbed, but the actor is better off staring into the distance or chucking a convenient Bible across a floor or getting a back tattoo.
The villains of the piece are standard, with True Blood’s Trammell the best of the bunch by default. He features in the film’s best-shot sequence, as he looks out the car window to find something threatening his survival in the gas tank. Sekuła wisely lenses the side mirror, capturing Trammell’s hopeless desperation.
As far as the action is concerned, it’s also pretty standard. It lacks the delicacy of the similar John Wick and the killings are mostly bloodless, which damages the finished product of a vengeance-based thriller. Nothing feels coarse enough, with characters even saying “freaking” as opposed to the more operative inflection.
I Am Wrath is a tough sell. It lacks personality, substance and style. There’s little to separate it from similar projects, although one does kind of have to credit Travolta for taking the plunge in the direct-to-video market. He may not be blessed with the normal human capacity to express emotion, but he does look badass in a certain light.