I’ve always enjoyed Jason Statham action movies – they may be largely devoid of intelligence but they are consistently, well, action-packed. He may have started in Brit movies, but his migration to the mainstream US was swift and efficient, making a name for himself as the next generation in Hollywood action superstars with his fun Transporter trilogy, the Crank movies, and now the Expendables franchise. In amidst all these successful film series he’s done more his fair share of duds – War (with Jet Li) and Chaos (with Wesley Snipes) really should have been so much better – and also more than his fair share of remakes – joining Mean Machine, The Italian Job, and leading Death Race and, now, The Mechanic.
It’s nothing against the guy, but I totally missed the whole Charles Bronson furore in the 70s, primarily because I hadn’t been born. Still, the guy’s clearly something of a legend, although he is perhaps not as well known for his early outing in the Sergio Leone masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West as he is for his vigilante exploits in the Death Wish saga. Even if I haven’t seen them all, I certainly know of both these, and some of his other action-thrillers, including Mr. Majestyk and The Mechanic. Personally, I have no particular love for these films, certainly not the latter two, and the notion of a modern remake – starring the regularly enjoyable Jason Statham – was far from bad news.
Do you remember those Hitman videogames? I’m not talking about the entertaining but still disappointing movie adaptation – I’m talking about the original game series, where you played an assassin who was sent on various missions and could choose to kill his target in either violently obvious, or stealthily silent ways. You were, of course, rewarded more for doing it in the latter fashion, the highest accolade being whether or not you could effect your kill without leaving any trace of foul play. The Mechanic kicks off just like a mission from Hitman. We are introduced to Jason Statham’s Bishop, a master assassin and consummate professional, who exacts a kill on a heavily-protected Columbian druglord and both makes it look like an accident, and gets away undetected. He picks and chooses his targets – no innocents, they all have criminal backgrounds – and does his work through his contact and mentor, Harry (Donald Sutherland, what are you doing in this film?). But when the agency that they both work for put out a contract on Harry’s head, Bishop’s world is thrown into a bit of a spin. He reluctantly takes on Harry’s estranged, rebellious son (Ben Foster) as a protégé and begins to teach him the ropes, but when his missions start to get messy as a result of using his new, rough-around-the-edges student, the bosses upstairs start to wonder whether Bishop himself may have also outlived his usefulness.
It doesn’t take much for me to get a kick out of a Jason Statham movie. After all, I thoroughly enjoyed the Transporter movies (ok, so they went downhill, but the first one was a fresh blast, and the sequels served a similar purpose) and even they, despite being allegedly written by Luc Besson, were the flimsiest of stories you could possibly imagine – guy transports dangerous packages / his latest package is a girl / people try to kill the girl / he protects the girl / he kills people / he gets the girl – and barely deviated from that basic structure in both sequels. The simplicity comes in packing this anorexic narrative with enough cleverly choreographed fight sequences, shootouts and elaborate car chases to keep action fans satiated for the respectfully short duration.
The Mechanic starts off promisingly enough. After all, it’s the one thing they didn’t seem to get right in the movie adaptation of Hitman – showing a technically proficient assassin actually killing people without leaving a trace – and within the first few minutes of The Mechanic, we’re introduced to a guy who does exactly that. It’s quite tense, quite well-conceived and reasonably unusual. But as soon as that’s over, the movie immediately shifts gear and coasts in well-trodden, painfully familiar territory, plotting out one genre trademark after another in a structurally unadventurous fashion. The anti-hero of the piece (yes, he kills people, but they’re all bad, we’re told) is misled by an obvious villain into killing an obvious ally. He pairs up with an obvious psycho, who obviously doesn’t want to play by the rules, to eventually kill the obvious villain, and, when the dust has settled, his new ally is obviously going to want to confront the man who killed his dad. It’s painting by numbers, predictable in the extreme.
Mentor-student assassin movies should never have become a sub-sub-genre unto themselves, but ever since Luc Besson’s masterpiece, Leon, came into existence, imitators have sought to cash in on the theme. Recently I saw Hanna, which was touted as a logical progression from Leon, but which turned out to be a tonally unpredictable but not quite perfected thriller (with some great performances, no doubt). It’s very good, nonetheless, but it’s also the exception to the rule – a rule which surely applies to The Mechanic. Now, I know that The Mechanic follows exactly the same plot as its Bronson-starring predecessor by the same name, but I just think that this standard narrative doesn’t work for post-Millennium + 10 viewers.
Worse still, the action follows The Mechanic’s protégé, played by Ben Foster, much more so than it does Jason Statham – a frustrating fact when you consider that all most Statham fans wanted to do was watch the action-man kick ass on a regular basis. It’s kind of like reading a book written by your favourite author, and finding out that he’s the ‘attached’ name on the story, and that it was actually written by someone else using his characters and basic ideas. Foster, who has made a name for himself playing some fairly grungy, offbeat roles – unafraid of being the weasel-like bad guy – in everything from Hostage to 3:10 to Yuma; from the restrained Punisher adaptation to the disappointing Event Horizon-lite Pandorum. I’ve got no problem with the guy, he’s quite a good ‘psychotic lead henchman’, but seeing him actively take the reins in missions that we wanted to see Jason Statham carry out is just not as satisfying. A little less screen-time – or a little better character development between the two (this film thinks shooting montages are character development) may have made a big difference.
Statham is generally a very reliable action superstar – and has enough charisma and steely grit to stand tall with the best of them – but there’s no reason for him to be taking a back-seat here, nor is there any reason for him to be so irritatingly monosyllabic. He’s neither old enough to want to retire, nor does he seem like the kind of guy who wants a partner. He has loner written all over his face, and is best seen cornered in a workshop, or the like, by a dozen guys with swords and wrenches. Here the best shootout is carried out by his protégé, sitting on a sofa, no less; and the best fight is again between the protégé and a big beast of a guy – and both of which we would have preferred to see done by Statham.
And then there’s the ending. I didn’t see that coming. No, sorry, I don’t mean that it was a surprise – there wasn’t any surprise, I knew exactly what was going to happen – what I mean is that I didn’t expect the ending to... um, end so abruptly. It looked like one of the easiest jobs The Mechanic has ever had, and left me feeling thoroughly unsatisfied. Just shoot a few people, crash a car, and shoot a few more people. Job done.
As stated, the niche angle that they are going for in The Mechanic really is quite ill-advised. It may well look good on paper – the concept of an assassin training up a protégé to become like him – but it’s been done so many times now, and in so many relatively novel and interesting ways (from Leon to Kick-Ass to Hanna), that the by-the-numbers approach of this film just does not reward modern audiences. It’s not even a Transporter-movie’s worth of enjoyment.
Still, I’m being critical because I expected more – well, not much more, but definitely more than this – and I’m sure action fans will find this a cut above your standard DTV b-movie. It’s just that this is not DTV, so we deserve better. And it’s certainly not what Statham should be doing right now either. An Expendables sequel, a Crank sequel – hell, even a fourth Transporter movie would be a welcome relief in comparison. Thankfully his upcoming The Killer Elite, opposite Clive Owen, and supported by Robert De Niro, bodes well, and remains eagerly anticipated. In the meantime, Statham completists and action aficionados will find it hard to resist checking this out, but should set their expectations low to avoid too much disappointment.
A darker take on the material – which didn’t pander to the notion that the lead, despite killing people for a living, has to be a good guy at heart; and which explored in greater depth (well, any kind of depth would have been a step up) the relationship between mentor and protégé – may have actually worked. But arguably Statham’s too young (and perhaps too... erm, limited) for that kind of role, and would have better suited a solo narrative, more tailored for his ass-kicking abilities. Unfortunately, instead, all we get is a film with two pretty insipid, shallow leads, neither of whom we are rooting for; neither of whom we even care about. Flawed, occasionally meandering, predictable and far from satisfying, The Mechanic is fairly throwaway, watch-once material – the kind of production you would expect from a straight-to-DVD Wesley Snipes, only with a bigger budget and a more professional style.
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