Columbus' unflattering close-up: "I Am Wrath"

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

The John Travolta movie "I Am Wrath" finally gave our city the cinematic starring role we've always craved. But there's a catch.

"I Am Wrath" is big fun.If you can peel your eyes away from the sleek pelt atop John Travolta's head, you will see a Columbus you have never seen before. Not on film and not in person.

The movie is Columbus' cinematic debut. Other films with Hollywood pedigrees have been filmed here, but none have actually taken place in Columbus. Our streets and landmarks don't stand in for someplace else as Cleveland did in "The Avengers." That's no generic airport terminal John Travolta is strolling through when the film opens, it's Port Columbus. That street lined with lighted arches near Downtown? It's High Street in the Short North, and the characters call it that.

This produces a certain amount of giddiness in the provincial Columbus heart. Ripples of excitement coursed through the crowd whenever a familiar site popped up during the big-screen premiere of the film in June at the Gateway Film Center. A shot of Travolta in the parking lot of Buckeye Donuts prompted wild cheers.

And Columbus looks great on film: the Statehouse lawn, aerial shots of Downtown, the skyline all lit up at night, the comfortable streets of Bexley, the bustle of the Short North-it's as fine a commercial for Columbus as you'll ever see. But you might not want to look too close.

"I Am Wrath" is a revenge fantasy along the lines of Liam Neeson's "Taken" franchise-obscure middle-class man suffers violence and loss. Obscure middle-class man turns out to be some kind of former special-ops guy who takes matters into his own hands and carnage ensues.

Travolta needs all those special skills, too, because it turns out that Columbus, Ohio, is a murderous hellhole. Women are viciously stabbed in parking garages, the cops and politicians are totally corrupt, the streets are not safe, the Short North is a red-light district where men lose their appendages to bolt-cutters…

Hold on, you're saying, I've never even heard of this movie. You mean Hollywood came to Columbus and trashed our reputation? How did this happen?

"This thing got started with an idea by Mayor Michael B. Coleman," Chris Hamel tells the crowd before the premiere at Gateway. Hamel is the CEO of Film Columbus and is, along with Coleman, one the first people the "I Am Wrath" producers thanked in the credits. They also gave "special thanks to the City of Columbus and all of its fantastic residents" and well they should. This city opened it arms wide and welcomed the "I Am Wrath" production like a long-lost relative-the one who just got out of jail.

"The number one thing [the producers] were looking for was a collaborative community," Hamel says, explaining how Columbus came to be the locale for "I Am Wrath." "A lot of people had to come together." Indeed, the list of locals who receive thanks from the producers at the end of the credits goes on and on: numerous City Hall types (in addition to Coleman), Columbus schools, the fire department, the recreation and parks department, the airport authority, the city of Bexley and its police department, the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, the Franklin County sheriff, Ohio State, the Franklin County Historical Society, Residence Inn Downtown, nightclubs, tattoo parlors, a funeral home, restaurants and many more.

Hamel credits Coleman for giving Film Columbus the impetus to "raise awareness of Columbus as a film destination," for facilitating cooperation among all the players that needed to get on board to convince the "I Am Wrath" producers that Columbus would provide whatever resources were required. Oh, yeah, the tax credit that the state of Ohio provides for filmmakers who work here was important, too, he says. All that paid off when the film team got to town. "As the filming went along, they started incorporating new elements of Columbus into the script," he says. A number of incidental scenes in the film could have been filmed anywhere, but they are recognizably in Columbus.

Perhaps the producers' gratitude for Coleman explains why the main villain in the movie is not the mayor of Columbus but the governor of Ohio, who in the normal course of affairs would not likely deal with the two corrupt Columbus police detectives who earn Travolta's considerable wrath.

These are the detectives who catch the case of Travolta's murdered wife, played by Rebecca DeMornay, then make it clear they have no intention of solving the crime. After Travolta's character identifies one of the killers at a lineup, the cops disregard him and let the guy go, winking at Travolta on his way out the door. It turns out the detectives are in cahoots with a gangster who, in turn, has some kind of deal with the governor. Travolta's wife was killed to protect the governor's son from the consequences of some nefarious action. (I've seen "I Am Wrath" four times, and I gave up on figuring out the plot midway through the third viewing. The plot doesn't matter in this kind of movie.)

So Travolta (he has a name in this movie but I can't remember it-again, it doesn't matter: He's John Travolta) and his nutty wig (the credits list one Stacey Butterworth as "Mr. Travolta's Wig Designer") link up with a barber who's none other than Christopher Meloni of Law & Order: SVU fame. Meloni has hair issues of his own but is letting nature take its course. He and Travolta are former badasses of some sort, experts in weapons and killing, and Travolta has left that life at his wife's behest. Now they're reuniting to find the killers themselves. "Luck will run out on you. I won't," Meloni says.

They're quite a pair. They blow away one guy in an alley of the sort that runs through many older Columbus neighborhoods (it looks like the Near East Side to me), then they throw him in a dumpster and set him on fire. Then they go to Buckeye Donuts. Meloni encounters another bad guy and dispatches him by breaking his shin with a baseball bat. He tells Travolta, "This guy is an Armenian douchebag." Travolta goes to a tattoo parlor (Stained Skin, I think) and gets "I Am Wrath" written across his back in huge letters.

Meanwhile, welcome to the Short North, where it's night and the arches are lit and the streets are crowded. Mean streets they are, too: "There was a homicide a couple days ago in the streets of the Short North," one of the detectives says at one point. "Some scumbag nobody's gonna miss." The detectives are there to confer with a gangster named Lemi K., played by Paul Sloan, the guy who wrote the script.

Now, the Short North at one time did in fact have some strip clubs. Maybe even a brothel. But I doubt that it ever housed torture chambers where psychotic women wield bolt-cutters and aren't afraid to use them. We watch a guy lose a body part to one such woman and then, for some reason, we cut to a shot of the LeVeque Tower standing proudly under sunny blue skies.

And so it goes, Travolta and Meloni and a trail of mayhem. The two detectives are blown up by a Travolta-set booby trap. Gangsters don't have a chance against these guys. They wind their bloody way through Columbus, and finally Travolta has the inevitable confrontation with the governor, who holds a shotgun and asks, "Who are you?" To which Travolta inevitably responds, "I ... am ... wrath." He wrestles the gun away from the guv and shoots him dead. He walks out the door and is shot by the governor's bodyguards. But he somehow survives so he and Meloni kill one more cop for good measure, and we get one last shot of our beloved skyline while the heroes discuss their next move: "We drive to Cincinnati and then fly south." Lucky Cincinnati.

Good solid 21st-century filmmaking. Seriously. Well-directed, fine acting, a merciful running time of 92 minutes, all on a budget of $18 million, just the kind of film promised by Hannibal Classics, which "specializes in the production, financing and distribution of Feature Length Theatrical Motion Pictures with budgets starting at U.S. $17 Million," according to its website. Some other recent releases: "Setup," "Red Squad," "Rage," "Ratchet & Clank," "Five Minutes to Live." Not ringing any bells? Not surprised.

Hannibal specializes in what used to be called B-movies, straight-to-video, straight-to-cable, whatever. They get a big name-Travolta, Nicholas Cage, Bruce Willis, Wesley Snipes-who's not quite at the top of the Hollywood food chain anymore, pair him with a good action director and then look to make the film as cheaply as possible. The intent is not to open the film in theaters nationwide but to make it available digitally. Films like this often make more money overseas.

"I Am Wrath" debuted on April 15 on OnDemand at $10.99, but by mid May was available for $6.99. The premiere at the Gateway, the opening of the Film Festival of Columbus, was the only time the film has been shown on a large screen in Columbus.

That doesn't bother Hamel, he says. When the film was shooting here last year the producers hadn't even lined up a distributor, he says. The point was to get Columbus on the filmmaking map, and as such, is a huge achievement for Film Columbus (aka the Greater Columbus Film Commission), its biggest yet. "For Columbus, it's a great first step," he says.

Yeah, but Columbus isn't exactly crowned in glory in "I Am Wrath." Did Hamel have any qualms as he watched the film the first time, seeing the corruption, the sleaze, the trail of dead bodies? "No," he says, without doubt. "The film might portray parts of Columbus in ways we don't recognize but I think people will realize that it's fiction."

Absolutely right, echoes Jami Goldstein of the Greater Columbus Arts Council, a sponsor of the film festival. "Movies are shot in New York all the time that [show] it as a lot more corrupt than it actually is. People know it's fiction."

Maybe they're right. Maybe Hollywood sits up and takes notice of Columbus. The keys to the city dangle, awaiting Travolta and Merloni's return for the filming of the sequel, "I Am Bald."