If movies could get by on earnestness alone, I Am That Man would stand head and shoulders above almost anything else like it.
Writer, director, and star Matthew Marsden – a British-born actor and recording artist with a rather mind-boggling resume of film, TV, and music credits – obviously has his heart in the right place for his first behind-the-camera effort, and it doesn’t feel good to be tough on a film that’s as genuinely respectful and sympathetic to the plight of military veterans as Marsden’s is. But although it’s easy enough to see what he was going for, and to admire his obvious concern for those who’ve served, I Am That Man ultimately engenders little more than mild compassion. Too safe to be a satisfying genre picture and too simplistic and wooden to be a resonant character drama, it suggests a number of better movies it could have been, but it ends up not really looking like any of them.
Marsden stars as John Beckett, a kindhearted former Navy SEAL readjusting to workaday civilian life and struggling to maintain a relationship with his son and estranged wife. Beckett’s closest friend and de facto father figure is an elderly Jewish widower named David. His protective instincts are triggered when a crew of repugnant neo-Nazi punks descends on David’s neighborhood and starts vandalizing the unassuming old man’s property. What begins with spray-painted swastikas and busted-up lawn furniture quickly escalates to a brutal assault that David is too frail to recover from. Beckett – armed with the skills and fighting spirit he cultivated as a SEAL – resolves to extract his revenge on the gang.
“…former Navy SEAL readjusting to workaday civilian life and struggling to maintain a relationship with his son and estranged wife.”
From that plot description alone, one wouldn’t be off-base to peg I Am That Man as a modern riff on the post-Death Wish cycle of late-70s/early-80s exploitation pics – hard-edged stuff with titles like The Exterminator and The Annihilators – in which battle-scarred Vietnam vets embarked on vigilante killing sprees against domestic evildoers. Where those low-budget B-movies couched their sociological subtext of wronged soldiers and rampant criminality in repellent violence and grindhouse grit, Marsden takes a much tamer and less sensationalistic approach to their familiar setup. With much of its violence happening off-screen and, indeed, its revenge plot frequently placed on the back burner, I Am That Man clearly aspires to be something other than a lurid potboiler.
This isn’t necessarily the film’s problem – if anything, it’s refreshing to see Marsden not straining for shock value or wallowing in the more unsavory implications of his premise. But, unfortunately, what that leaves is a movie that mostly feels flat and plodding, even as it grapples with issues that could conceivably make for potent drama. I Am That Man bolsters its A-story with several subplots – one about Beckett’s attempt to reconnect with his wife (Christine Lakin) makes a lot of sense thematically, while another, involving a shady used-car dealer, doesn’t really – but, throughout his scattershot narrative, Marsden never seems willing to portray Beckett as anything other than heroic, stable, and utterly competent, nor to place an obstacle in front of his protagonist that can’t be tidily resolved. It takes surprisingly little effort on Beckett’s part to track down and stay one step ahead of the villains, and – despicable as they’re made out to be – none of them ever really receives a suitable or satisfying comeuppance (the closest the film ever gets, in fact, is by cribbing a memorable bit from Die Hard With a Vengeance).
“…he’s obviously much more interested in dealing with veterans’ affairs concerns…”
Marsden himself does have the needed physical presence for his role – and he has a nice rapport with his on-screen son (Finn Marsden, whom one assumes is also the actor’s real-life son) – but he and the rest of the cast struggle with the on-the-nose dialogue they’re too often supplied with, further rendering the film’s big dramatic moments largely inert. It’s not that anything in Marsden’s scripting or staging of scenes stands out as being egregiously horrible or incompetent, but there’s little flair, nuance, or impact in the way I Am That Man presents its characterizations or confrontations, and thus, its emotional and visceral payoffs are limited, at best.
To his credit, Marsden doesn’t ever make the film feel like the vanity project it could have been; the sincerity and wholesomeness he brings to the project are admirable, and he’s obviously much more interested in dealing with veterans’ affairs concerns than in positioning himself as some kind of marquee action star. Maybe what he needed here was simply a collaborator, someone to sharpen and shade the otherwise decent-enough story he sought to tell. As-is, though, I Am That Man is as unlikely to offend as it is to leave any kind of lasting impression.
I Am That Man (2018) Written and directed by Matthew Marsden. Starring Matthew Marsden, Christine Lakin, Finn Marsden, Matt Riedy, Tim Abell, Brian Thompson, Josh Kelly, J. Carson Ulrich. I Am That Man screened at the 2018 GI Film Festival – San Diego.
4 out of 10