Director: Simon West / Writer: Richard Wenk (from original by L J Carlino) / DP: Eric Schmidt
Cast: Jason Statham / Ben Foster / Donald Sutherland / Jeff Chase / Mini Anden
Beware the sins of the Father…
Veteran producer Irwin Winkler made the original version of this story, back in the early Seventies, with Charles Bronson as the hitman-for-hire (known in certain circles as a ‘Mechanic’). Fast-Forward some forty years and Winkler decided the time was right for a new generation to shake-out their wallets for a remake (not that anyone remembered / cared about the first one). So, he got a new script out of Richard Wenk and brought Simon West on-board to direct. West, an experienced British director of ACTION was perhaps best known for his first feature, the inimitable Con Air and could be relied on to deliver the goods.
But who could possibly headline this cinematic leviathan? It’s time to talk about ‘The Stath’: Jason Statham. A fascinating character, Statham’s career-to-date has been unorthodox, to say the least. Competitive high-diver. Male model. A childhood friend of the ex-footballer-turned-actor Vinnie Jones; a connection that got him noticed by Guy Ritchie, who began casting Statham in a string of character roles, throughout his early gangster flicks.
One thing led to another and soon, this (unlikely) gravel-voiced rising star was headlining his own films, beginning with The Transporter from 2002. His willingness to do most of his own stunts, drawing on his own athleticism and spatial awareness, are a hallmark of Statham’s films and while he might never be a Shakespearean lead, the camera clearly loves him. He reciprocates in-kind, delivering poker-faced frowns to all and sundry on-cue. It’s somehow fitting, that he should be reprising Bronson’s role as, in some ways, Statham is inheriting his blend of savage physicality with sensitivity: get it right and it’s a highly potent & bankable combination in an actor.
And the film itself? I confess to liking the opening, thinking it blocked-out and choreographed well, if a little formulaic in its execution (even if the, err, execution was something I’d not seen – or considered – before. Then again, I’ve led a sheltered life, so what the hell do I know?). I won’t spoil it for you, but if The Stath (sorry, Arthur Bishop (‘AB’)) ever asks to inspect your swimming pool, I’d be worried whether or not you’ll see another dawn… As a piece of business, it serves to establish AB’s credentials: taciturn, adept at infiltration, anticipating enemy routine and planning-on-the-hoof. When I watched it, the first thought to spring to mind, was that this was little more than a marker for EON Productions…
After this stylish opening things get a little more prosaic, with the film quick to establish AB’s tastes, depths and motivations: though in this instance, I’m not sure this melange isn’t down to The Stath himself (or his management), in some box-ticking exercise. As a result in his films, we get an early topless shot, for those who can’t watch one of his films without one… Then, a brief bit of rumpy; usually with an off-duty model or, in this case, a ‘tart-with-a-heart’ and an opportunity to round-out the sensitive side of his character, by here showing that AB likes the odd Schubert piano recital, on an LP no less, and played on a fancy-schmancy (valved) turntable. Add-in a beautiful Jaguar E-Type and a tasteful, stilted home on the bayou and we’re all set for mayhem: either that, or we’re about to watch a biopic of a dangerously reclusive architect…
The wrinkles soon appear, in the form of Donald Sutherland’s under-used Harry McKenna – a wheelchair-bound handler, who’s something of a mentor to AB, if not a father figure, on account of him having a wastrel for an actual son: that’d be Steve (Ben Foster), who’s M.O. in life appears to be this: make life hard for yourself… But more of Steve, later. Right now, sensitive-but-inert AB gets orders to
retire kill Harry who, he’s told, betrayed a team ‘in South Africa’. This he does, in a basement car-park, unseen and alone, though the frantic journey Harry takes in his chair, just to REACH the basement, might very well have done the trick without a shot being fired… Still, he makes it to the rendezvous and is killed for his efforts, but AB now gets an attack of guilt at leaving Junior an orphan.
So, he takes this psychopathic whinger under his wing and teaches him the ropes of being a Mechanic. Along the way, Master and Disciple remove a corrupt evangelist and an arms dealer from the DNA pool, and Junior proves his worth by winning the confidence of a Mechanic working for ‘another team’. This is en-route to topping the bloke, though when push comes to shove, Junior ignores AB’s sage advice by killing him the ‘old fashioned way’.
It was the build-up to this sequence – of Steve’s acquaintance with Burke (the man-mountain that is Jeff Chance) – that left me feeling uneasy. Not the homo-erotic under/overtones here per-se, but how West decided to handle Steve’s revulsion of the situation. AB’s original solution was to have Junior slip a Mickey-Finn into Burke’s drink, but he chooses not to. Instead, Junior leaves the bar, mission unaccomplished. At this point, Burke catches-up with him in the street and ushers him back to his car (as AB’s VO reminds us that this is a ‘no-no’). You can read this two ways: either Steve was surprised to have Burke catch up with him, and didn’t have the nous / training to lead him back to the bar for a second attempt, or he expected to see him and wanted the gory version to pan-out all along.
Why? Either to prove to himself that he could emulate new BFF Arthur in everything OR to exact some anti-gay revenge, perhaps to purge what might’ve already happened in jail. Either way, I wasn’t convinced. YES, the film has to establish Steve as an unreliable loose-cannon, but on seeing his battered features, AB should have dropped him like a stone and sod any loyalty to Harry still lingering like a bad smell… That he didn’t was troubling, as it left a motivational hole at the centre of the film I couldn’t shake.
This carries through to a straightforward finale, as the corrupt agent who ordered Harry’s death (some cheaply-besuited CIA Smart-Alec from Central-Casting, called Dean in this incarnation) seeks AB’s end, along with Junior. Oh, and just when we think that Junior’s going to have AB’s back throughout (we don’t, but let’s carry on), he finds his Dad’s engraved pistol (with the pithy aphorism ‘Victory Loves Preparation’: no wonder Harry & AB thought of themselves as Kin, and why Junior’s so angry). So, we get a ‘tab A into slot B’ final reel: a close-quarters shootout in a city street, that lacks the ambition (and budget) of that seen in Michael Mann’s Heat, but it’ll do.
With business concluded, AB’s driving his truck with Junior alongside. He notices the pistol’s grip poking out of Steve’s jacket. Realising what’s up, AB naturally gives nothing away. Now at a petrol station, Steve volunteers to fill-up and calmly allows the pump to flood the forecourt with petrol, and shoots at it from a distance. The resultant fireball is enough to lead any rational observer to believe that AB’s now dead. Steve’s irrational, yet he comes to the same conclusion and returns to the stilt-house. Just WHY isn’t explained (maybe he wants to pick-up AB’s life?) but in order to dominate the big man’s memory / legacy, there are a few things he wants to do; things that AB forbade him from doing before. First among these, is getting to play that Schubert LP which, unbeknownst to Junior, actually triggers a self-destruct mechanism that blows-up the house. Of course.
Then, as if to reinforce Junior’s brattish idiocy, he drives-off in the E-Type… He has just enough time to read a note (‘if you’re reading this, then you’re already dead’) before that, too, explosively disassembles itself, along with its driver.
Fret not, Stath fans, for there’s one last trick: CCTV footage of the petrol station, reveals your hero barrel-rolling out of his truck moments before the explosion (though how he avoided burning underneath the adjacent truck is beyond me). As if to underline The Stath’s superhuman abilities to the team at EON, the last shot is of AB clambering into a spare truck and power-sliding onto a road that stretches to the horizon. The film might’ve closed with the title-card:
Arthur Bishop Will Return.
And return he did a few years later, in an ill-advised sequel that reportedly tanked at the box office. Why? There are any number of possible reasons for a movie’s failure, but in this instance, I think it’s because the 2011 film is too average overall, to inspire the kind of repeat viewings that make a genre picture into a cult picture first, then a franchise. There’s only ONE quotable line in the whole picture. The cast – even the lead, sadly – lack a winning charisma; think of Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon or Bruce Willis in Die Hard as just two examples of what’s lacking here. It’s also shocking, that the only female role here, is that of a bloody hooker! Winkler missed a trick in not realising that things had changed in the forty-odd years since his first bite at this cherry: imagine how this might’ve played, had Junior been a kick-ass, unhinged WOMAN!
As I said at the outset, Mr Statham is – I believe – sufficiently self-aware of his acting range to not stray off the path, lest he lose his way. Yet, maybe, he should move on from films for – and about – emotionally stunted, Willy-Waving Men. He ought explore a lighter – or darker – side and reveal that on-screen! Either way, it’s undoubtedly there off-screen: just a shame we never get to see it: and as long as he makes films like this, we never will…
I’m going to put a price on your head so big, that when you look in the mirror, your reflection’s gonna want to shoot you in the face.