Bulletproof Vest Doc ‘2nd Chance’ Tells A Wild Tale Without Focus

A Sundance documentary about the inventor of the bulletproof vest tells a compelling story that wanders in all the wrong directions.
2nd Chance Documentary

This review of Ramin Bahrani’s documentary 2nd Chance is part of our 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage. For more reviews and essays, visit our Sundance archive.

There’s a point in Ramin Bahrani’s documentary 2nd Chance when his central subject, kevlar bulletproof vest inventor Richard Davis, mentions an outright appalling tenet of his company. As the founder and CEO of body armor producer SecondChance, Davis once had a special coupon deal. If a police officer were shot in the line of duty while wearing his product and managed to put down the person who shot them, they’d get a free gun from Second Chance. This is the type of loaded statement around which one could center an entire documentary, but Bahrani lets it slide by in favor of entertaining more of Davis’ good-old-days stories.

2nd Chance is a compelling story that, unfortunately, never quite comes into focus. Davis is the doc’s main subject, and his life is certainly worth unpacking. The man has spent decades cultivating his personal legend, beginning with a pizza delivery shootout that inspired him to enter the body armor business in the 1970s. Davis started a business that many of the documentary’s subjects consider outright heroic. Second Chance perfected and popularized the modern bulletproof vest, saving lives and keeping plenty of local community members employed in the process.

The film builds to Second Chance’s most disastrous scandal, the ill-fated incorporation of a new vest material called Zylon. Zylon didn’t always work, something the documentary indicates Davis knew about long before the product was pulled from shelves. Yet as a documentary, 2nd Chance also presents plenty of other troubling aspects of Davis’ life and career without thoroughly examining them. There are mentions of earlier scandals: arson and murderous threats, plus questions about the legitimacy of Davis’ origin story.

People around Davis tend to end up in dangerous situations, as when his massive annual firework display goes awry, killing one person and maiming another. These incidents are interrogated on a surface level. The people who spent time with him comment on Davis’ dangerous ideologies, but the film itself seems to refuse to, putting the burden on his ex-wives and former employees without crafting an edit that drives any of their points home.

The portrait we end up with is one of a self-assured narcissist who casts himself as the hero of his own story. We’re told about Davis’ dad’s formative experiences in the military and about the propagandistic short films the former CEO felt compelled to start making when his business took off. The result of this sticky psychological web is a man who–in what is poised to become the film’s main talking point–frequently shoots himself in front of a camera to demonstrate the durability of his product.

2nd Chance takes its audiences to an intriguing intersection between capitalism, violence, and ego, yet it doesn’t really know what to do when it gets there. Interview subjects are calm as they recount their sometimes traumatic experiences with Second Chance, and a flat edit does little to draw our attention to points of interest or emotion. Bahrani’s occasional narration seems more expository than enlightening. Aside from the entertaining use of archival footage, few of the filmmaker’s choices are genuinely engaging.

The documentary’s most creative and satisfying choice comes at its end, in which two people whose lives are forever tied by Second Chance body armor reunite. Each shot the other decades ago. And when the two meet, it’s with a quiet explosion of regret, forgiveness, and compassion. This is the only part of 2nd Chance that doesn’t feel muted, and it’s also the only part that makes plain the subtext that too often gets buried in Davis’ jingoistic walk down memory lane. The people shooting each other aren’t usually mask-wearing bad guys and badge-wielding good guys; they’re human beings whose lives change forever after split-second decisions.

This is the fundamental misunderstanding that Davis clings to when he says his advice to his younger self would be to carry even more guns. It’s the point he misses when he creates over-the-top re-enactment movies featuring bloodthirsty hippies and heroically avenging police officers. And it’s the faulty logic he carries with him when he takes it upon himself to protect every cop and soldier he can.

The moment of restorative justice presented in the documentary’s third act could have been the starting point for a more impactful film. Instead, it’s a climax that’s surrounded on either side by Davis’ dead-end lack of introspection. When asked how it felt to shoot someone, one of the interview subjects instantly breaks down and says, “horrible.” Yet we’re left not with that thought but with the indelible imagery of Davis, pulling the trigger on himself again and again like he has over a hundred times before. What does it mean? 2nd Chance doesn’t seem to know.

Valerie Ettenhofer: Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)