Jason Statham, like Charles Bronson before him, has become a staple and brand name of hard-boiled action. The ironic thing about both stars is that though they have (had in Bronson’s case) plenty of the necessary charisma, most of their films aren’t really all that good. Arguably, Statham has had it a bit rougher than Bronson. Who can stand and criticize The White Buffalo when you have a Uwe Boll film and two Cranks on your resume?
The good news is that Simon West’s remake of Bronson’s 1972 film The Mechanic moves the bald-headed berserker closer to his predecessor’s legacy. This is not a complex or thoughtful film but it does what it has been asked to do with skill and passionate dedication. Here you get to have your brief rumination on the nature of revenge and bash its face in too. Win, win.
The plots of both films are ostensibly the same in the early going but begin to diverge around the second act for audience-friendly reasons.. In this new iteration Statham plays Arthur Bishop, a lone hitman who specializes in assassinations that look like accidents. His employer is a shady corporation that eventually strong-arms him into murdering fellow comrade and mentor, Harry Mckenna (a wily and wheel-chair bound Donald Sutherland). Feeling regret –if only a little–for his part in the event, Bishop ends up taking Harry’s aggressive, alcoholic son in and teaching him the tricks of the assassination trade. The truth about Bishop’s hand in his father’s murder isn’t revealed to Steve (Ben Foster) and the younger McKenna targets the corrupt handler who organized the hit. This clichéd rat is played by a delightfully slimy Tony Goldwyn, chewing the pieces of scenery that Statham and Foster occasionally miss. All of this is invariably heading for a final act showdown between the two primal male forces in the film; Steve and Arthur. By the time we arrive at that finale, bodies have been burned, shot, stabbed, thrown off and down things, shot, broken and shot again for good measure. If it’s a bloodbath you came for, then you won’t go home disappointed.
A film like The Mechanic is virtually critic proof. The target audience is signing up for lots of muscled-up Statham, a couple of revealing physique shots, and heaps of gratuitous violence. There’s also some self-referential comedy to prevent anyone from feeling any sort of moral discomfort for casually observing such joyful carnage. The Mechanic delivers all of that and more and West makes sure it is technically well executed (ha!).The targets in the film are legitimately bad people and this may help ease the conscience of anyone who might suddenly wake from their testosterone-induced coma and question the validity of having Statham’s Bishop be such an amoral and cold individual.
The original had fun with the ironic and dangerous relationship between Bishop and the younger McKenna. One was principled and lived according to a complex code of conduct that stopped short of murder and the other was a seething emotional time-bomb who treated the hitman gig like his own restorative therapy. When the finale of that film came it had earned its bleak and intense final section. Statham and Foster have a surprisingly nuanced rapport with one another but their characters have been reduced to comic-book stand-ins of the originals. There’s much done to ensure that we can always root for Arthur and that wasn’t true of Bronson’s character. The conclusion follows suit by soft-pedaling and restructuring the original’s vision.
But so far you have gotten the idea that I’m suggesting the 1972 film, directed by Michael Winner, is a better film than the remake. This isn’t precisely true. Yes, the original had a more psychologically compelling through-line but it was also strangely inert for most of the going and the action scenes were lethargic and poorly staged. By streamlining the new film to be a slicked-up drag-racer for Statham’s career, Simon West has made it more relevant. There’s an erratic energy and giddy vibe to The Mechanic’s assassination scenes and Statham’s gritty charm and dead-eyed resolve ground the popcorn decimation.
Then there’s the sinister sidekick; Ben Foster, who looks like someone dipped Ryan Gosling in motor oil. Foster hasn’t done any leading man work thus far but he’s been having a great run of playing second fiddle in such pleasing films as The Messenger, Pandorum, and 3:10 to Yuma. His cracked and deranged Steve is tuned directly to Statham’s wavelength and together they happily destroy the film’s rogue’s gallery of gorilla-size gay killers, cultists and arms dealers. Behind them all is Tony Goldwyn who earns his paycheck by constantly looking like he’s going to kick you in the face and then piss on your comatose body. All of this of course is hidden down behind a snakey smile, one that never falters even when delivering the line ‘“I’m going to put a price on your head so big that when you look in the mirror your reflection is gonna want to shoot you in the face.” Sutherland does what he does most of the time, waltzes into a thankless role and shines it up so it looks like the inspired work of a more ambitious production. I don’t buy the film’s view of chivalric moralistic killers but Sutherland almost makes it sing.
I’m just about finished with one-note revenge thrillers like this one, and yet I did enjoy my time with The Mechanic. It’s not exactly a good movie—it’s entirely too haphazard and dramatically tone deaf for that—but it does deliver on the promises of its cast and trailer. If you fancy yourself buying a ticket for this then you know what you are getting into. Simon West may not be in the first class of directors but he knows his way around a glossy extravaganza and improves here upon his daffy previous pictures including Con Air and Tomb Raider and he does a better job remaking this than his woeful A Stranger Calls in 2006. The trick is knowing how to stretch the premise and make use of Statham’s knucklehead charm. This isn’t as easy as it looks but it turns out that having a witty subversive presence like Foster recharges chrome-dome’s charisma better than surrounding him with packs and packs of over-the-hill bodybuilders. Go figure.