What happened to John Travolta’s career? For the better part of three decades Travolta was an unstopped box office force, then after we all got over the Y2K scare he lead one of the biggest box office flops of all time before dropping out of the spotlight almost altogether, and now in 2016 he’s back and doing the kind of films that Steven Seagal probably gets offered on a weekly basis? No offense to Steven, of course.
I Am Wrath tells the story of Stanley (Travolta), a man who spends the opening sequence of the film watching his wife (Risky Business star Rebecca De Mornay) being murdered in a seemingly random act of violence in an airport parking lot while he lies beaten on the ground. Stanley identifies the man responsible for the attack in a police lineup, but when the cops release the suspect a short time later Stanley grows suspicious that the law might not be doing all it should to give his family justice. This leads Stanley to decide he must find the men himself, which is made easy by the fact he has a lifetime of experience in battle and a best friend (played wonderfully by Christopher Meloni) who is willing to help.
By the time Stanley finds the men responsible for his wife’s death he must face the fact simply killing them will bring him no peace. Deep down he believes that there is more to the story than a group of thugs deciding to kill his wife for no other reason than the contents of her purse in the middle of a parking garage, but he no evidence to prove his theory. Of course, no one is willing to talk, but Stanley doesn’t mind giving them a reason to through whatever tools are at his disposal. If that means beating someone to the point of stupidity, so be it. If that means killing a few low level bad guys so that the higher ups reveal themselves, Stanley is okay with that as well. His mission is not one he expects to walk away from, nor does he care if he lives another day once his work is complete. All Stanley wants is answers, and he’s not letting anything stand in his way.
I am not sure if I Am Wrath is supposed to be viewed as a serious revenge thriller meets buddy movie or as a parody version of a serious revenge thriller meet buddy movie, which leads me to believe it could be attempting a ‘choose your own adventure’ type viewing experience. If true, it is an utterly insane move, but it does pay off across the board. Both arguments have their merit, be it the dark subject matter driving cries for seriousness or the heavy-handed score helping those who believe its humor, and both will have their supporters. The film also dabbles in themes of political corruption of the timeless crisis of faith in regards to whether or not an eye for an eye is really the best way to handle situations, but neither is fleshed out enough to add much weight to the bottom line.
Travolta, having only explored the world of visceral on-screen violence through films such as From Paris With Love and his often overlooked role as the villain in the Thomas Jane lead version of The Punisher, carries I Am Wrath with a sense of sincerity that helps raise the title above your average shoot-em-up genre fare. His take on Stanley is one that makes him appear incredibly torn over his own actions, as if he resents the things he knows he is capable of despite needing them to uncover the truth. It’s fairly impressive work, especially in a film that could very easily be little more than a series of shoot-outs in alleys, back rooms, and abandoned factories. Even when Stanley utters the title of the film in a self-referential way, you go with it. Not many actors can make that kind of schtick work, but Travolta still has that intangible ‘it’ factor that makes his every move entirely watchable.
Equally impressive is the performance of Christopher Meloni who, despite having spent more than a decade fighting crime as Elliot Stabler on Law And Order: Special Victims Unit, has never had much opportunity to showcase his tough guy skills before this film. Meloni’s turn as Dennis is calm and calculated, taking in the world around him and the events unfolding without the same emotional attachment Stanley has to every turn. His presence helps keep Stanley focused on answers and resolution when his base impulses tell him death and destruction is the only way to make peace with the fact his wife’s life was taken. When Dennis realizes his friend’s search for vengeance cannot be stopped, he joins the adventure in hopes of ensuring they both make it out alive.
Though it struggles to decide what kind of film it wants to be, I Am Wrath provides enough mindless, action-packed entertainment to satiate any genre fan. I am not sure what John Travolta must do in order to climb back out of the video-on-demand market, but as much as I enjoyed this film I know it’s not going to lead him to anything more than similar work in equally familiar stories. If he’s happy in this world then he should absolutely remain, and I wouldn’t be upset if there was an excuse for he Meloni to further collaborate on-screen, but there is evidence throughout I Am Wrath that the star the world once held above practically all others is alive and well underneath Travolta’s latest toupee. With the right film, John Travolta could be as big today as he was in his prime, but material like this just isn’t going to cut it.