Jason Statham, the bullet-headed British action star from the Crank and Transporter films, seems like a throwback to some earlier time in movie history, when tough guys didn't wear tights and masks. Last year, he co-starred in Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables. That role anointed Statham as the heir to the brawny action dudes of the eighties. If the one-time Olympic diver doesn't pack as much meat in the pectoral region as his predecessors, he's got a puckish charm and nimbleness to compensate.
His new movie, The Mechanic, is a step back even further in the past - the Charles Bronson version from 1972.
It's a stripped-down action flick with guns, babes, tricky assassinations, crisscross plotting and not too much dialogue to get in the way. The Bronson film aimed for a certain French deadpan style, a cousin of Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai (1967), in which a hit man - or "mechanic" - named Arthur Bishop compromises his professional integrity and isolation. The new version, directed by Simon West ( Con Air, Lara Croft), has a deliberately minimalist, retro look to it as well.
To a point, it works well. The superiority of ingenuity over explosions is demonstrated in the quiet opening scene, in which Arthur demonstrates how he uses stealth tactics to dispatch a South American drug lord in a way that makes it look like he died of natural causes.
Back in New Orleans, Arthur takes a break, works on his expensive car restoration, listens to Schubert on vinyl on a high-grade stereo, and enjoys the occasional bout of R&R with a call-girl friend (Christa Campbell). But his self-contained, solitary existence can't last. In the assassination business, of course, it's hard to say who your friends are, though we can guess fairly early that the rich guy (Tony Goldwyn) who serves as Arthur's agent isn't trustworthy.
Arthur gets an assignment that takes him to see his old mentor in killing people, Harry. Played in an incisive cameo by Donald Sutherland, Harry is an old reprobate in a wheelchair who's worried about his troubled son Steve (Ben Foster, The Messenger, 3:10 to Yuma). Soon, Arthur finds himself taking the young man under his wing as his apprentice in assassination.
The movie kicks into gear, looking initially like a grim buddy movie. Steve is as scruffy and jittery as a meth addict, while Arthur is watchful and coolly professional; but the relationship increasingly appears doomed. After his training montage, Steve takes on his first solo hit and does not follow instructions. The result is a sustained, intense sequence of two men struggling hand-to-hand to kill each other. We're used to violence being sanitized and stylized, and this scene is hair-raising.
Unfortunately the sequence is an exception - other scenes of brutality feel contrived - and the movie moves in fits and starts like a jalopy with dirt in the fuel line. There just isn't enough consistent energy to light up the glum, generic plot or enliven the one-dimensional performances.
With its understated, moody, 1970s production values and amoral protagonist, the movie promises a sophistication that it doesn't deliver.
Still, it couldn't be called a disappointment.. Given the serviceable quality of Statham's films since his breakthrough in Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), The Mechanic is right on track.
- Directed by Simon West
- Written by Richard Wenk and Lewis John Carlino
- Starring Jason Statham, Ben Foster and Donald Sutherland
- Classification: 18A