“I’ve been shot over 200 times now,” body armor innovator Richard Davis once said. “The first time was science, the next 200 were show business.” Davis has really shot himself 192 times, filmed as extreme infomercials, but this truth-stretching is just another part of the gig. With his company Second Chance, Davis invented the modern bulletproof vest. He became a corrupt small town oligarch. He played God with the lives of thousands. Director Ramin Bahrani’s feature-length documentary debut 2nd Chance puts Davis under the filmmaker’s microscope, which often observes entrepreneurial immigrants and other conspicuous participants in the American Dream, to find out what kind of man the Kevlar protects.
That the Kevlar seems to have mostly, if not entirely, protected Davis from himself—the self-inflicted gunshots merely leaving welts on his chest that’re great advertising—is not a fact lost on Bahrani’s meaning-seeking helmsmanship. Bahrani plays director and narrator for a traditional talking head doc, and film critic to Davis’ string of promotional movies, which grew from his snuffish stunts and natural inclination to ham it up. With names like Second Chance Vs. The UAP, these feature-length marketing films, corny and clear in their ideology, allow the wannabe Dirty Harry to express his desires for (always left-wing) criminals to be gunned down in the street while simultaneously promoting his product to the law enforcement and military.
Davis, who looks like Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney get-up from Vice, is a blistering purveyor of jokes and ultra-American rhetoric. He’s an almost too-perfectly symbolic gun nut happy to dodge direct responsibility for any bad and accept praise for all the good he could even tangentially claim. He’s also a man so invested in those cops his vests are saving, like Aaron Westrick, that he literally walks one down the aisle at her wedding. Westrick became so close to the organization that he was able to blow the whistle on Second Chance and Davis when they were covering up their knowledge of Zylon (a similar polymer adopted by Second Chance) and its tendency to degrade over time. Its failure led to the death of at least one police officer, and Westrick is presented as the idealistic, big-hearted supercop who made sure the real villain paid for his crime.
It’s an intriguingly heavy notion, pitting this righteous ex-lawman against a caricature of entrepreneurial libertarians. One is godly, he nearly became a priest; the other has a God complex, all too ready to run a heavily armed compound to spite political correctness and reward his followers. Bahrani’s uneven strength at navigating this ideological conservative conflict comes out as he digs deeper into anecdotes, presenting small pieces of damning evidence or people other filmmakers wouldn’t have interviewed (like Clifford Washington, who shot and was shot by Westrick all those years ago).
It’s in these moments, not in Bahrani’s more direct confrontations of Davis’ pathological lies, that 2nd Chance shows its heart. The filmmaker inserts himself into the narrative mostly when speaking to Davis, to emphasize contradictions and to levy big, broad, doc-ending questions like “Richard, what is it you’re most afraid of in this life?” Davis, for his part, plays along as one obvious showman to another. But he’s too calculated a performer to be much of anything besides entertaining. It’s when we see his jokey note on a photo (“The family that slays together stays together”) or listen to his pair of ex-wives, sick and tired of his exhausting shit, that we truly glean some insight.
As Bahrani searches for and defines the do-overs promised by the United States, he finds that while some people take the opportunity for change—the good-hearted Washington and Westrick hug it out at the spot they shot each other—those that find the most success in this country are those dedicated to its other promises. Its promises of individualism and cutthroat capitalism; of capital-F Freedom, weaponized as an excuse rather than an ideal. Bahrani, like his subject, can blitz through the rabble in order to better focus on the flashy star of the show, who remains desperate to shoot himself with whatever ammunition he’s given, and the premise with which he’s made the film. But even if it feels a bit too neat and tidy and predetermined a metaphor, one has to appreciate 2nd Chance’s ogling commitment to dissecting a perfectly American parasite.
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Writers: Ramin Bahrani
Release Date: January 22, 2022 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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