The first time I was made familiar with Richard Davis, inventor of the concealable bulletproof vest, it was long before acclaimed director Ramin Bahrani’s documentary 2nd Chance about his rise and fall premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Instead, it was in the 2020 Red Letter Media Christmas video where the group drunkenly discussed one of the inventor’s self-produced films with a combination of morbid fascination and bafflement. They tried to make sense of why he performed what can only loosely be referred to as skits, unleashed gunfire on a car until it was in flames, and shot himself in the chest while wearing a vest from point-blank range. Though this was years before the documentary’s release, it oddly was the perfect introduction as it captured what it would be like to witness the strangeness of the man while still having many unanswered questions about what his whole weird deal was.
Though there is much of the same footage that is then given an explanation of how it all came to be, Bahrani’s documentary takes us deeper into what it was that Davis represented and now does. While streaming has seen an inundation of slapdash true-crime documentaries that try to coast on the wildness of their story alone, this is one that moves beyond the spectacle and sees what lies beneath its eccentric surface. It is still wildly entertaining and isn’t afraid to lean into the absurdity of it all while pushing itself to look closer at its nuances.
As we hear from Bahrani himself in one of many moments where he narrates about his thought process in approaching this subject, “what drew [him] to Richard were his contradictions.” There are moments that are darkly funny as we see Davis’ blatant hypocrisy and hateful inclinations rear their head despite often praising himself as being a great guy, though it eventually reaches a point where any laughs from the contradictions are subsumed by sadness. Even as the documentary doesn’t always grapple with the full depths of its subject, the way Bahrani delicately navigates this story ensures he cuts through the noise.
This itself is certainly an undertaking as Davis sure likes to make a lot of noise. Whether with guns, explosives, or his own mouth, we come to see how this man masks his own insecurities with excess. For a while, this seemed to work as he created a thriving business that made him a bit of a local celebrity who ended up seated behind then-President George Bush. From these opening moments, we can already see the writing on the wall that something is going to go wrong. Without ever being showy, Bahrani patiently observes how Davis has created what is essentially a character for himself to inhabit which is the first of many lies he tells to the world.
He expresses how he was driven by concern in creating vests to protect people that he would personally test so as not to put anyone at risk without doing so himself. In reality, it was a gimmick that was about creating a mythology around himself, his ego, and his business that initially proved to be incredibly effective. Having idolized Clint Eastwood, Davis seemed to be almost modeling his persona and worldview off of the fantasy of the actor’s movies before then trying to make warped versions of his own. These bizarre and reactionary propaganda films doubled as telling advertisements for his business. It is part of how the more we come to know about the empire he created the more we can see the cracks beginning to form.
Central to this is how Bahrani is refreshingly willing to put tough questions to an older Davis himself. Far too often, it can feel like other documentarians regrettably compromise their approach so as to maintain access to their subjects and will only lightly challenge them. Bahrani blows this out of the water, ensuring that Davis has to answer for many of the cruelties and deceptions we come to discover. The director does so calmly yet firmly as we hear his measured voice chime in during the many interviews. This means that we get Davis on the record based on what the many others that came into contact with him say about who he was. Though his last film was fictional, it resembles Bahrani’s underseen 2021 adaptation The White Tiger in how it maintains a clarity of purpose. It makes for the type of documentary filmmaking that approaches being more journalistic in its construction as we see the fragile excuses and explanations that his subject provides come apart, piece by painful piece.
The film is a character study of Davis with the world he lived in, but it doesn’t ever let that go unchallenged. Even as there are moments where it could and should have been a bit more comprehensive, especially in terms of some of the things that happen in the videos that we don’t see, all of this happens for a reason. While we entered into this story with Davis taking up the spotlight, the documentary is also willing to step away from him entirely and zoom out at the broader context. For all the ways that the inventor was a domineering figure hellbent on bending the world to his own advantage, Bahrani pointedly goes out of his way to step out from his shadow and prevent the entire story from being dominated by his depravity.
One particular sequence when we are nearing the end sees two people that Davis pitted against each other come together. They do so in order to reconcile their shared past of pain that each caused the other. This provides a glimpse of how there can be a better world that is not defined by deception and greed. It opens a door to the hard work of forgiveness and compassion that embodies the film’s title more than the corporation Davis created ever could. Though fleeting, it is a portrait of people being decent to each other that serves as an intriguing refutation of sorts that Bahrani offers before it all comes to a close. It is via a willingness to push beyond the headlines and discover something more about humanity that 2nd Chance reveals a deeper sense of the truth behind its scandalous story.
2nd Chance is in theaters now.