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Movie Reviews

[Sundance ’22] ‘2nd Chance’ review: Autopsy of an American Dream

Who shot ya?

Say what you will about Richard Davis, but that guy believes in himself and believes in his product. Enough to shoot himself in the torso 192 times. Richard Davis is the entrepreneur turned inventor who engineered the lightweight, bulletproof fabric vest so that those put routinely in harm’s way would have a comfortable enough shield for daily use. His signature sales pitch consisted of two parts. First, he would shoot himself and then turn with a snap to hit three bowling pins behind him. He reported that the bullet was painful, “stings enough to make you mad,” but he wanted to prove that in his Second Chance kevlar body armor, a person could take a licking and keep on ticking, so to speak. 

Repeating the stunt, as reckless and painful as it was, was a no-brainer. For Richard Davis, creating the Second Chance body armor was vocational. He believed that God put him on this plane of existence to sell this body armor and save lives, so his marketing had to be every bit as bulletproof as the product itself. Compared to shooting yourself in the chest at point-blank range, nothing seemed too extreme. 

He went into the armor business to protect the lives of police officers and soldiers, specifically, and by 2003 the vests were not delivering on that guarantee. There was a time when Richard Davis would rather take a bullet than have his product fail. In 2nd Chance, filmmaker Ramin Bahrani does more than expose the cover-up of Second Chance’s fatal error. 2nd Chance is the autopsy of Richard Davis’s reputation. Knowing that his story ends in devastation and disgrace, Bahrani cracks open the legend of Richard Davis to determine where the degradation of Second Chance’s foundational ideal started. 

Bahrani presents his mission of discerning where Second Chance went wrong as one of personal satisfaction. He had learned the story of Richard Davis, and it created a cognitive dissonance that he had to resolve for himself, which is why he made 2nd Chance. With his own curiosity as the crux, Bahrani draws us into the interviews with Davis. Davis is a fascinating guy and a great storyteller. He recounts the incident that sparked the inspiration for a more concealable armor with gusto – he shot four armed robbers in self-defense while delivering a pizza. He took two bullets in the leg, and the idea got stuck in his craw. If he had gotten shot in the chest, he would’ve been done for, and the bad guys would’ve won. 

For Davis, it was never entirely about saving lives. It was as much about taking the bullet as shooting the pins. Second Chance was never about preservation; it was about the escalation in the battle between the crooked and the righteous. And every war needs its propaganda. The VHS tapes of Davis shooting himself was his entrée into show business. He also created low-budget exploitation films with evocative titles like Second Chance vs. the U.A.P. (1975) Second Chance vs. Magnum Force (1989). They starred real cops and featured bloody shootouts and fiery explosions. They were designed to keep the clientele scared and spending.

There is some gratification in seeing a tycoon dismantled.

By first clarifying Davis’s intentions, Bahrani can then separate what was historical and hysterical. Don’t get me wrong. There was no slight-of-hand when it came to the bullet creating a welt on Davis’s chest, but Bahrani’s investigation exposes a whole other shell game going on behind the scenes. It shouldn’t surprise us that Richard Davis, who spent his entire adult life fixated on self-defense, actively sought ways to make himself untouchable. Before his downfall, the President of the United States was standing at a podium wearing one of his vests and thanking him for his “God-given talent.” His vest did, in fact, save lives.

There is some base gratification to seeing another duplicitous tycoon dismantled. However, Ramin Bahrani plays into our schadenfreude with 2nd Chance to ask a more profound question. Did the hundreds of lives he saved justify his blurring the line between legend and lies? Did one grave error erase the ingenuity that got him to that point? Can we separate the redeeming from the damning?

The Sundance Film Festival is online January 20- January 30. Tickets can be purchased and a full lineup can be found here.

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