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‘2nd Chance’ doc is part quirky portrait, part gotcha journalism

Richard Davis, the inventor of the bulletproof vest, is the subject of Ramin Bahrani’s less than wholly satisfying film

Richard Davis in “2nd Chance.” (Vespucci)
(2.5 stars)

The first time you see Richard Davis in the documentary “2nd Chance,” you wince. And the second time as well. The former Marine once owned two pizza parlors, but when the restaurants burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances, his life took a startling turn. Taking its title from the body armor company Davis subsequently founded, the film tells the complex story of the man who invented the bulletproof vest — and, more notably, who shot himself 192 times at point blank range to prove the effectiveness of his product.

Director Ramin Bahrani, whose working-class dramas (“Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop,” “The White Tiger” and others) can feel like documentaries, has found a great subject in Davis. The inventor is an affable guy, and the film plays with the contrast between the intensity inherent in Davis’s product and his friendly, chatty personality. The film’s rounded 1970s title fonts and use of grainy home movie and commercial-grade video create a look that evokes a more innocent time. And in contemporary interviews, Davis poses in front of vintage wood paneling in his man cave, suggesting a figure from another era, preserved in 20th-century amber.

Bahrani often follows Davis’s lead in telling violent stories as if he’s talking about a first date. For instance, relating an incident in which Davis’s then-fiancee was taken hostage at his pizza parlor, Bahrani, in voice-over narration, explains that she was there to pick up an order of two large pepperoni-and-ham pies. Ominous music (by T. Griffin) gives the story the air of a cable TV reenactment. (In fact, the story is followed by clips of a reenactment of that very incident produced for the Discovery Channel years later.)

Davis has an acute sense of gallows humor. News footage shows him returning to an alley where he claims he defeated two men in a gunfight. “Unfortunately,” he quips, “I was fighting three at the time.”

It’s a funny story. But is Davis telling the truth?

On some level, Davis, whose body armor has saved thousands of lives, is a hero. Davis’s onetime friend and business partner, Aaron Westrick, whose life was saved by Second Chance armor, can attest to that. But perhaps the boldness that leads a man to shoot himself hundreds of times can also lead to lapses in judgment. Given the nature of his work, those missteps can be deadly.

While Davis’s use of bikini-clad women to sell his vests may be questionable, for much of “2nd Chance,” the businessman’s rise from DIY ingenuity — initial orders for bulletproof vests were shipped in pizza boxes — to high-level government contracts seems, unimpeachably, like the American Dream.

Eventually, the chinks in Davis’s armor begin to show, sometimes literally.

Unfortunately for the film, as the holes in Davis’s story start to appear, so do the flaws in “2nd Chance,” which shifts from a quirky portrait to gotcha journalism. Bahrani starts to milk the material for maximum effect, and as he does, it starts to feels like exploitation, particularly when it comes to the introduction of one whistleblower who has multiple sclerosis. A tacked-on epilogue focusing on Westrick introduces a potent emotional kicker, but it’s so powerful that it might have served the movie better if Bahrani had found a way to integrate it into the larger story.

For the most part, “2nd Chance” is right on target. But in the end, its aim isn’t quite true.

Unrated. At AMC’s Georgetown 14 and Regal’s Gallery Place. Contains strong language and gun violence. 89 minutes.