“I’m gonna to put a price on your head so big that, when you look in the mirror, your own reflection is gonna wanna shoot you in the face!”
Michael Winner’s cool but slow-burning 1972 thriller, The Mechanic, starring his craggy faced pal, Charles Bronson, in the second of their many nihilistic pairings, goes in for its MOT and gets a big pimped-up revamp from Con Air’s Simon West, with Jason Statham assuming the lead role of the super assassin hired by shady organisations to take care of the opposition - no questions asked – who is then compelled to train an apprentice in his deadly art when events he once took for granted take a sinister and unexpected turn.
After the now ubiquitous introduction showing us just how skilled Statham’s Arthur Bishop is at performing a hit and making it look like natural causes, the nefarious plot wastes no time in showing us, in carefully measured takes how he goes about his day-to-day business, his meetings with clandestine contacts, and how he accepts new assignments … oh, and how he gets the girls whenever he has the opportunity. The end commodity in shadowy dealings arranged via brusquely efficient intermediaries, the bayou-based Arthur (aye, the name didn’t work with Bronson either) respects his wheelchair-bound contact, played by a truly slumming-it Donald Sutherland, and feels quite contented in his detached and dangerous existence. His expertise lies in the field of perfecting each and every hit to match the desires of his employer. If someone is to be slain in spectacular fashion, to send a clear message, say, then he is more than up for the task. But, in this world (and it probably hasn’t changed all that much since Winner’s concept granted the genre with that suspicious and cold-hearted edge so long ago), things shouldn’t necessarily be so overt. Thus, our boy is able to do what Vincent Schiavelli bragged so memorably about to Brosnan’s Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies of being able to shoot someone “from Stuttgart and still make it look like suicide.” He is a closet chemist – he can easily disseminate the counter-action and side-effects of a vast variety of drugs and make abrupt, on-the-hoof modifications to a poison cocktail – and he can arrange “accidents” with as much panache and technical flair as a TV crew staging a candid reality-guffaw show – to wit, the erotic asphyxiation that he so delicately constructs for a sleazy weapons dealer, and the rather nifty drowning that he orchestrates at the start. Kudos, here, for the ultra-black scuba-gear and the ability to use a victim like a puppet to sway any possible suspicions from lurking body-guards.
As a consequence, Arthur regularly finds himself in high demand from one global organisation most of all. But in this game you are only as good as your last job, and when your rivals are ruthless killers, just like you, you can't afford to have too many friends.
So when his next “hit” is to be performed upon the very man that he trusts most – Sutherland’s go-between, Harry McKenna – Arthur demands a meeting with the guy at the top. Cold and nasty facts are bandied-about, characters are tarnished and Arthur suffers a crisis of conscience. But … business is business, when all said and done. Left with a nasty taste in his mouth and some serious guilt issues after the deed, the lonely assassin finds himself taking under his wing Steve (Ben Foster), the son of his victim, and out of some sort of warped sense of honour, training him up to be another “mechanic”. All the while he harbours doubts over the circumstances that led to the execution and, as he continues to hone his protege, seeks to locate just who is responsible for making him slay a friend. It is a world of danger and deviousness. It is Bond without the government sanctioned license to kill. It is Jason Statham unleashed to wage war with guns, harpoons, fists, feet and even the pin from a fire-extinguisher … and it should have been awesome.
However, The Mechanic 2011-style, isn’t awesome. It is merely average.
Like you should never judge a book by its cover, we, as film-fans, know all too well that you should never gauge a movie, especially an action-movie, by its trailer. But, having said that, what mayhem-junkie out there wasn’t immediately turned on by the trailer for The Mechanic? Quick-cut, dynamite images of carnage – bullet, boot and sharp object delivered – and hot shots of steamy sex put you in mind – and in the mood – for a big, brash, brutal and balls-out marathon of “modern” Boys Own fun. Even those who knew and loved Winner’s original probably salivated at the prospect of such an explosive and clearly more in-yer-face interpretation of the saga. And the good stuff that the trailer proudly emblazoned like a badge of molten testosterone is certainly all there in the film, but sadly it all comes devoid of any sense of thrill or excitement. In fact, I felt quite cheated by the finished film, such was the false promise of that trailer.
Whilst The Mechanic is a relatively short film at around 85 minutes, there are still some sections that drag. The plot tries to involve us with twists and turns and the overhanging shadow of duplicitous skulduggery, but the devices involved are childish and all rather unnecessary when we just want to cut to the chase and see lots of brawling and gun-play.
A terrific fight on a bus between Arthur and another seasoned professional in the same business brings a brutal but brief high-point and provides evidence that, if left alone to carry the film, West could have had a winner, if you’ll excuse the pun, on his hands with Statham as the main focus. As much as the narrative needs new-boy Steve to practice his skills in the field, every time that the camera follows Foster’s unpredictable “noob” there is a tangible drop in the cinematic pressure. In the original, Vincent was able to harness that need to be moulded in a much more succinct and credible manner. Foster is imbued with far too many ticks and traits in the desire to make us accept him as a viable and interesting character. Bronson was much older than Jan Michael-Vincent and the mentor-dynamic there was more readily acceptable. Statham’s need to train this guy is much less believable. Arthur is a loner. It is made abundantly clear that he doesn’t need an accomplice, and he does not intend to retire from the business either. The loyalty/guilt thing is what the story hinges upon … and it doesn’t add up. Steve is a snarly and antagonising opportunist who didn't even get along with his old man, and was something of a disappointment to him. The potential for a character turnaround is huge, but even the quicker, stronger and more lethally trained Steve is a drag.Basically, we don’t want Foster hanging around. It is as simple as that. Even though the hit-man taking on an apprentice has always been an integral part of The Mechanic, this version loses steam whenever we are forced to hedge our bets and follow the two of them, as opposed to just Statham's ever-dependable master. We know as well as Arthur Bishop does that the monster he is creating, Frankenstein-like, is never going to be as good as him, and that, come the inevitable reveal, sparks are going to fly and that the hand that once fed is going to get bitten. So this devotional aspect is highly suspect, as well. And, without spilling too many spoilers, it is apparent, come the finale, that Arthur has been on top of things all along … which, as the end credits roll, will only make you wonder just why he bothered with Steve at all.
This said, Ben Foster throws himself into the part with some considerable gusto and he acquits himself surprisingly well in the more strenuous side of things.
There is a pulverising bout that sees the novice unwisely ignore the painstaking instructions that Arthur has gone to great lengths to impart upon him when he takes on a guy who could literally use him for a toothpick. This lengthy sequence, that culminates in the human equivalent of a wrecking-ball laying waste to a luxurious pad, actually reminded me of Thomas Jane’s incarnation of the Punisher battling that bizarre Aryan meathead in Jonathan Hensleigh’s disappointing 2004 version of the Marvel killing-machine, such is its David and Goliath mismatch. And Foster was actually in that film as well! Yet, as wince-inducing and as knuckle-gnawing as this set-piece is – check out the crushing damage that results from hiding behind a fridge door - I would still rather have seen Statham go up against him.
And, worst of all, the big climactic battle – you know, the thing that we'd been eagerly anticipating since the start – is over and done with in about two minutes. Crash, bang, wallop … literally … and it's done. Seriously, was that it? Underwhelming, to say the least.
And all of this is set to a sub John Powell techno-beat that inspires thoughts of Bourne, but becomes swiftly generic and downright tedious as the film goes on. Ambient master Mark Isham delivered the score and it is singularly (and typically for him) unimpressive. Admittedly, this is the style that he has been running with for quite some time, so it wasn’t like it had been foisted upon him by a director who wanted to please the kids, and Isham has only been consistent. Lots of montages of Arthur putting Steve through his paces encourages a bland pulse-like build-up, and a severe amount of imagery concentrating upon Statham simply walking up to, or away from the camera, scowl-equipped, in that hard and cool fashion that we all wish we had, elicit similar metronomic replies to the otherwise smoothly ambient tones that moody Isham strikes up.
Although many people cite Con Air as being one of the great modern action films, I found it immensely disappointing, with some cack-handed set-pieces that wouldn't have been out of place in The A-Team TV series, and a severe lack of impact apart from that great “bunny back in the box” bit. Whilst there is considerable “impact” with the fight scenes in The Mechanic, West has given-in to the hand-held shaky-cam techniques – here performed by relatively new DOP Eric Schmidt - that worked so well in the first two Bourne movies, but was horribly overdone in the third and in Quantum Of Solace, too. Here, in the best two sequences – Arthur Bishop locked in a duel with his opposite number in the tight confines of that passenger bus, and the kinetic skirmish on the rooftop after the botched assassination of a corrupt cult leader – we end up with savage, close-up rapid-cuts that pummel almost subliminal imagery of extravagant violence at us without too much in the way of visual coherence. I have definitely seen worse, but I had hoped that The Mechanic wouldn’t go down this relentlessly overused path.
It is all well and good to try to do something slightly different with this type of pugilistic, one-dimensional film … but in throwing Ben Foster’s moody and irritating wannabe into the mix, West and his writers Richard Wenk and Lewis John Carlino (who also wrote the original version) just dilute the very formula that makes such movies popular in the first place. Without a doubt, Statham would have been better showcased if he had been alone. I like Foster … I really do. His pinched, weasel-like features brought a harrowed look to his vagrant-scout for the vampire army in 30 Days Of Night, and he was a breath of flamboyantly psychotic fresh air in 3.10 To Yuma. But watching him trying to act tough, double-tapping rounds into enemies, putting the hurt on a would-be car-jacker and engaging in bone-crunching confrontations with outsized homosexual ogres fails to ignite the adrenaline. He looks like someone trying to look tough, whereas Jan Michael-Vincent in the original had a convincing edge to him already, and the kind of emotionless shark eyes that conveyed hidden depths even if the acting was always up to scratch. Foster simply tries too hard to become this angst-ridden, embittered avenger … and, for me, as good a performer as he usually is, he fails.
Going back a couple of decades, this sort of thriller was actually fairly commonplace, with even the likes of The Eiger Sanction, The Osterman Weekend, The Stone Killer (another hit-man opus from the Winner/Bronson stable) and The Ipcress File pitting covert operatives with decidedly unsavoury agendas against one-another after “in-house” set-ups and betrayals. In a genre that is, of course, dominated by 007, there is also the sheer class of 1997’s excellent Grosse Pointe Blank and even Angelina Jolie's super-tense Salt from 2010. But the neat idea of one jaded and cynical hit-man taking on an apprentice and schooling him in the ways of expert extermination was nothing new even then, though the appealing triumvirate of Winner, Bronson and Michael-Vincent made it seem fresh, if a touch sedate when compared to the likes of Luc Besson’s cult hit, Leon.
Hot off the heels of The Expendables, I would have expected more from a Jason Statham vehicle. There is plenty of action, an occasional frisson of suspense, and even a surprisingly harsh home-invasion sequence, but there is a curious lack of genuine excitement about the affair. We all know that Arthur Bishop is going to have to deal with the shady organisation that has set him up. We also know that he and Steve are going to have to settle their own account when the truth gets out about Harry’s execution. But despite two meaty one-on-one dust-ups and some quick-fire shootouts, the film seems strangely pedestrian and lacking in full-bore thrills. And this is taking into account the scene when Arthur and Steve (not a great handle for a dynamic duo) are forced to slide down the side of a high-rise building like a cross between Die Hard’s John McClane skidding down the Nakatomi Plaza on a fire-hose and Richard Pryor’s vertical skiing in Superman III. Quite frankly, Statham is much better than this. He has the all-essential charisma that separates him from the legions of other buffed-up martial artists turned macho movie heroes, and his brand of laconic tough talk possesses a nice vein of understated rage and seething underdog resentment. But in The Mechanic he is virtually monosyllabic, with his odd and distinctly unquotable lines not so much growled as merely mumbled under his breath. His character is clearly intelligent, though. Even if his intimate knowledge of buildings, vehicles, weapons, surveillance systems, armed and unarmed combat, and innate people-watching skills doesn’t tip you off about his purist, devoted and obsessive mind, then his playing of classical music, on highly protected and coveted vinyl, certainly will. Yet Bronson was better again at portraying someone who exists on the fringe of society, and lives according to his own code. Statham’s façade of a double-life – coldly efficient killer one minute, lone-wolf club-it kid the next – doesn’t carry any solid appeal. When compared to how Oliver Jackson-Cohen deals with a very similar sort of role in the equally disappointing Dwayne Johnson thriller, Faster, we find a wild dichotomy of styles. Jackson-Cohen (who looks unnervingly like the young Mel Gibson from the first Mad Max) plays his hit-man as an immensely likable, though profoundly narcissistic chap. His big-headedness is actually matched by his expertise, and the normally clichéd character becomes something of a rare delight. However, Statham, as he is written here, already seems tired and old hat in the sort of the role that he should excel at with that rough diamond attitude of his.
An attempt has been made to bring the buddy-buddy angle to a genre that, to be honest, really doesn’t work well with it. The uber-assassin flick is all too common, I know, and a slight detour like The Mechanic is a welcome idea in theory, but I feel that West drops the ball with a remake that is thoroughly middle-of-the-road by today’s standards and the target audience – who really aren’t all that interested in murky sub-plots and character dynamics these days, anyway – will be left unmoved and vaguely disappointed. The Transporter films are close cousins, but they are also a lot more fun. Statham’s Crank outings may be ludicrous but they offer considerably more outrage, and they also allow him to cut loose with such chaotic clout that they become addictive. The Mechanic, incredibly, feels restrained and entirely forgettable by comparison.
In my opinion, we should send this one back to the garage.
As befits its title, this remake of The Mechanic is workmanlike. It tightens the action-valves, retunes the narrative and soups-up the spectacle, hoping that the end result motors across screens like greased lightning. But whilst elements of Simon West’s remake push the adrenal pedal to the metal, the ride itself is somewhat lacklustre and uninspiring. The set-pieces rarely deliver and we find it hard to care about either of the two main characters. All the usual ingredients seem to be in place, but the film lacks colour, and a style of its own. And soul. It is devoid of anything remarkable, and in a genre that constantly has to push further this leaves The Mechanic dead in the water.
Statham does all that is asked of him, and the bitch of it is that he does it well. But the problem is that he is saddled with carrying the usually reliable Foster, who is simply not believable as a fledgling assassin, and the film becomes an unlikely two-hander that gets bogged-down in the relationship between the two leads when this should have been its most intelligent arc. The saddest thing of all is the utterly squandered “wheel-on” part that poor Donald Sutherland gets. Surely a career low.
West is not a good director, I’m afraid. And The Mechanic, something that I had been immensely looking forward to, is a damp squib. Don’t be suckered-in by that trailer. This will be a fine enough diversion on home video – and I anticipate some excellent audio bombastics from it on Blu-ray – but even action-devotees should be demanding something more memorable than this humdrum thriller.
Be wary of this Mechanic. He's just handed you a ringer.
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