“I Am That Man” is a vigilante movie with a small “v.”
It’s also a treatise on veterans making the transition back to civilian life and a salute to those who serve.
That makes the movie refreshing, ambitious, and a bit frustrating. It’s a well-intentioned hybrid with more texture than the average shoot-em up, but some sequences could use some fine tuning.
Matthew Marsden wrote, produced, directed, and stars as John Beckett, a former Navy SEAL adjusting to life outside the combat zone. He’s got a pre-teen son (Finn Marsden) who thinks the world of him and an estranged wife (Christine Lakin) who clearly doesn’t.
Father and son spend time bonding with an elderly Jewish neighbor they treat like a member of the family. The feeling is more than mutual, which makes an anti-Semitic assault on the senior all the more harrowing.
John has a particular set of skills that could come in handy should the police fail to find the thugs who hurt his neighbor. Only, “I Am That Man” isn’t hell bent on making John the next Paul Kersey.
What follows is a more thoughtful variation on the “Death Wish” premise, one where family, friendships, and loyalty play critical roles.
Marsden’s character isn’t suicidal or drug addicted. He’s struggling with civilian life, but the film eschews the more dramatic side effects from serving overseas. PTSD doesn’t get a close up, but our hero’s stack of bills sure does. So does a marriage heading straight toward divorce court.
Little is going right in John’s personal life.
His wife moved out to teach him a lesson. His father-in-law would like to wring his neck. And we’re never really sure what happened in their marriage to make their split inevitable.
That lack of clarity isn’t a problem, assuming the home front sequences deliver on their emotional promise. Too often they don’t, leaving us with exchanges that feel perfunctory, not revealing. Marsden’s eye for finer details, displayed throughout the film, occasionally goes missing here.
Marsden the writer/director has better luck in other scenes, like whenever John connects to fellow veterans or strangers who cross his path. An early sequence where John bonds with a Vietnam War veteran is brief but poignant.
The first-time director boasts a natural eye for composition. His camera moves are rarely flashy, maneuvering around the characters in ways that enhance the story and tone.
He’s also keen enough to inject the screenplay with colorful asides, something seen in both casual exchanges and extended riffs. The film’s villains are an interesting lot, more obsessed with their bro-bonding than hateful rhetoric. These scenes should be space fillers, but “Man” treats them differently.
He’s eager to strip away any movie villain swagger from these thugs. They’re losers of the first order. Showing how ordinary they are diminishes their cultural strength.
Those atypical rhythms help paper over some of the film’s flaws.
Marsden’s performance leans toward the strong but silent type. He’s chattier than your average Charles Bronson hero, but his physical presence often speaks for him. He’s aware of his size, using it to intimidate thugs or just let his son know he’ll always be there for him.
Some subplots prove more impactful than others in “I Am That Man.” John’s strained ties to his father-in-law need more screen time. Yet his frustration with a used car dealership reveals plenty about his ability to channel military discipline when needed.
“I Am That Man” doesn’t deliver any signature fight scenes, but that brand of Hollywood excess wouldn’t fit anyway. John’s ability to defend himself is made clear, especially during an early fracas captured in a near-dark setting.
Once again, an atypical framing makes the sequence pop. It’s still frustrating to witness a scene late in the movie that feels cribbed from your average Liam Neeson flick.
Marsden’s admiration for all who serve make “I Am That Man” an imperfect but welcome addition to the vigilante genre.
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