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#HotDocs22 Review: 2nd Chance

May 9, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The 2022 Hot Docs Film Festival ran from April 28th to May 8th in Toronto, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

In his first feature documentary 2nd Chance, filmmaker Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo) introduces us to Richard Davis, a man who has shot himself 192 times in the chest and survived. This might seem like an odd way to describe the man responsible for inventing modern day bulletproof vests, which are now regularly worn by law enforcement, military, and even politicians.

But it’s a very accurate description of the type of person that Davis is; a born showman desperate to attract attention to himself. Bahrani soon makes it clear in his film, which breathlessly charts the rise and fall of his body armour empire, that Davis isn’t exactly the easiest guy to pin down. He’s an amateur filmmaker whose low-budget productions showcasing his products became popular in law enforcement circles, a gun-loving patriot with a Wild West sense of justice (at one point he was offering a free gun to officers saved by his vests who “finished the job” by killing their attackers), and, perhaps most crucially to his company, a ruthless businessman desperate to escape any sort of accountability. 

Davis is a former pizzeria owner from Detroit, Michigan who started the company Second Chance Body Armour in the 1970s after his pizza shops burned down one night. As the story goes, he bravely defended himself in a gunfight against several men who tried to rob him during a pizza delivery. This experience left him shaken but inspired to redesign old flak jackets to make them more concealable and lightweight, using woven nylon. He started mass producing the vests through his startup company, which at one point employed much of his town, and gained notoriety for how he demonstrated the effectiveness of his products; by shooting himself point-blank in the chest to show how the vests worked to stop bullets from penetrating the skin.

Even as he is being interviewed by Bahrani in the film, it’s clear that Davis sees himself as the hero of his own story, with his vests having saved countless lives. But what starts as a quirky portrait of a self-made entrepreneur begins to fold in on itself, as Bahrani slowly reveals Davis to be an unreliable narrator. At first, this might seem like a slightly odd marriage between director and subject, but Davis is a character right out of a dark side of the American Dream, “greed is good” cautionary tale, recalling the central figures in Bahrani’s dramatic films like 99 Homes and The White Tiger.

If Davis himself remains a bit slippery and hard to fully know, Bahrani refuses to left him control the narrative. The film’s other main subject is Aaron Westrick, one of the first officers whose life was saved by a Second Chance vest, who became crucial to the company’s success and is also an integral player behind what become the documentary’s most dramatic turning points. It’s in the last act, when Bahrani delivers one final interview, that the film’s title takes on new meaning, and 2nd Chance reveals itself to be something much deeper than just the story of a man who kept shooting himself in the chest.

It’s something that Bahrani does so well, and the fact that he pulls it off is a testament to both the sheer luck of finding these subjects, and his talents as a filmmaker. Delving into relevant questions around both police brutality and violence against cops, as well as the slippery nature of truth, 2nd Chance ranks among Bahrani’s finest films, filled with the shades of grey characters and deep morality that defines his best work. This is compelling, thought-provoking stuff.

Screenings:

Monday, May 2nd – 9:30 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Friday, May 6th – 8:15 PM at Varsity 8

Sunday, May 8th – 4:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

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