Wearing a green hat, spectacles and ear protectors, a man loads .44 Magnum bullets into the chamber of a gun. He hands his car keys to another man “just in case this doesn’t go right” and twirls the gun cylinder while invoking Matt Dillon, the fictional marshal of Dodge City in Gunsmoke.
“A lot of people think I’m kind of stupid for doing this,” admits Richard Davis, rolling up his sleeves, adding that if it changes one person’s behaviour, it will be worth it. He proceeds to turn the gun on himself and, after a tense pause relieved only by birdsong, fires into his chest. “Easy as pie, guys!” he says cheerfully.
The bullet had been stopped by body armour. Davis was the inventor of the modern-day bulletproof vest and shot himself point blank 192 times to prove that it worked. The ex-Marine, bankrupt pizzeria owner and born showman also mythologised his work by producing his own low-budget movies popular with police across America.
At its zenith Davis’s company, Second Chance, was worth more than $50m with products being worn by police, soldiers and even the president, George W Bush. But while he saved thousands of lives, Davis put countless more at risk with reckless lies and a culture of impunity. He took an execution-style view of law enforcement to rival Dirty Harry. He also displayed a narcissism and gift for self-aggrandisement worthy of Sir John Falstaff, PT Barnum or Donald Trump.
Now his bizarre rags-to-riches-to-disgrace story is told in 2nd Chance, the debut feature documentary by Iranian-American writer, director and producer Ramin Bahrani, who has previously dissected the American dream in films such as Chop Shop and 99 Homes.
“The first time I saw the footage of Richard pointing a gun to his chest and just shooting point blank – your eyes pop out when you see that,”Bahrani, 47, says via Zoom from his home in Brooklyn, New York. “And of course he did it almost 200 times. In addition to that, he was also a film-maker. He made lots of kinds of movies: propaganda, marketing, comedy. The marketing of it was very inventive and intriguing. He had a magazine called Sex and Violence so he was very clear on what he thought would sell his product.
“It worked: he went from an out-of-work pizzeria owner to running a multimillion-dollar company. There was something very brutal about some of these films, a pretty fascistic way of thinking about how to handle issues of justice or policing, and then at times broadly humorous and totally crazy. All that archival footage was just a great way to highlight a lot of the themes and the craziness of the story.”
Davis claimed that he was inspired to create body armour after a shootout with criminals against whom he was seeking revenge (he suffered bullet wounds to his head and leg). His great insight was that Kevlar would allow lightweight vests to be worn undetected under clothes. He left Detroit and opened a small factory in Central Lake, northern Michigan, hiring hundreds of people and becoming the town’s biggest employer. He was seen as the saviour of the struggling town and paid for its annual fireworks show.
But when he hosted a shooting competition on his personal range, and a stray bullet ricocheted through the woods into an elderly woman’s home, Davis allegedly tried to bribe and then intimidate a teenager into taking the blame (“Listen, if you tell anyone, I will kill you”). One year an explosion at the fireworks show killed one man and injured at least 15 people; again he refused to take responsibility.
Beloved by police, Davis faced few legal consequences. But then he distributed 100,000 vests containing a new material, Zylon, that proved defective; a police officer wearing it was shot and killed. Davis’s longtime employee Aaron Westrick – whose life had been saved by Second Chance body armour and who had acted in Davis’s cult films – became a government whistleblower in a case against the company, wearing a wire and recording conversations about the faulty vests.
Confronted about these incidents during interviews for the documentary, the septuagenarian Davis proves reluctant to fully own up to his mistakes (he describes the stray bullet incident as “an inglorious misstep”). He is an unreliable narrator but also offers moments of stunning candor. Bahrani was taken by surprise.
“We tried to make it clear it was not a vanity film, which maybe is what he thought it would be,” he says. “But also I tried to be very clear I’m not trying to make a takedown movie. I’m generally interested in who you are and what you think and what you believe and some of that he was prepared to reveal; other things, I don’t know if he was capable of going to emotional places.
“He seemed to talk a lot; sometimes I was shocked by what he was saying on camera, some of which I ended up not putting in the film. It was so out there and again I was cautious not to want to make a takedown movie, but he seemed to just say anything. It was a mountain of cognitive dissonance. No matter what you asked him or put in front of him about the past, maybe actions he had taken or things he had done, he didn’t seem to be able to accept any of those, which I wasn’t expecting.
“I thought he was going to reflect upon some of the mistakes he had made, some of the moral improprieties that he had been involved in. But he didn’t seem to even accept that they had happened in his narrative. In his narrative, he was either the victim or the hero at all times. For instance, the episode where there’s some fireworks and people get killed and he’s at the centre of that: he blames some unknown factory in China.”
The film-maker adds: “On the flip side, he’s created a myth for himself: his origin is a kind of bloody gun toting revenge mythology that doesn’t seem to have any basis in fact, as he describes it. But he insists that it exactly was that way, and what was astounding to me was other characters – like Aaron Westrick, the police officer who worked for Richard and later became a whistleblower.
“Despite everything that happened, Aaron still seems to prefer to believe in the myth of Richard’s origin even though he knows it’s not true. That was also very telling as a metaphor for the country and not just the country, but in general, how difficult it is for us to allow our illusions to die.”
Indeed, this is a story about capitalism, celebrity, gun culture, salesmanship, violence, making money and myths. A line from John Ford’s western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” springs to mind. Bahrani sees parallels with Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons, in which a man knowingly ships defective aircraft engine cylinder heads from his wartime factory and lets his partner take the blame.
“That’s very similar because you could take the armour company and change it to the airplane company from the war. Young people died. The son finds out. The father is in a moral crisis, kills himself due to some some moral centre. But here there’s no real moral centre. Someone dies in Richard Davis’s product and then with his son they form another company that is even more successful. That modernity of capitalism, the harshness of it.”
Yet like a well-drawn Miller character, Davis has a quality that makes him hard to simply dismiss and condemn. Bahrani, who also interviews his friends, foes and ex-wives in the film, acknowledges: “I admire him, I have to say. I respect what he did. He saved thousands of lives. He was very ingenious, very brave. I kind of liked him. When I would meet with him, he’d make us chili mac and cheese and he was genuine about that.
“Most of his philosophies I don’t agree with; I find many of them morally repugnant. This contradiction of feeling I had about him was shared by people around him, including people he was harmful to. They still somehow found themselves drawn to his charisma, even if sometimes it is hackneyed or cornball.”
The end of 2nd Chance brings the story full circle. Davis once again wears a vest and turns the gun on himself. But he can no longer shoot himself with a loaded weapon because, at his age, he would risk a heart attack. “So I asked him to demonstrate how he does it, so I could see it, and I thought he would just show us but we were filming it and he just kept shooting and I didn’t ask him to stop.
“The more he kept shooting, the more weird it got. We didn’t say anything and he just kept shooting and shooting and shooting. Going home that evening, riding home in the car with the producers to the hotel, I said, ‘My God, that’s the movie.’ The entire metaphor of the movie and of the country is one in which it is eternally shooting itself in the chest and so it seemed like the best way to end the movie.”
2nd Chance is now out in US cinemas with UK and Australian dates to be confirmed