British actor Jason Statham is perhaps the most believable and interesting action hero we have today. With his pumped-up physique and shaved head, he seems to propel himself through his movies like a bullet. But he has an interesting combination of steel and elegance that many action heroes don’t, which makes him more interesting to watch than most. But at this point in his career, Statham seems to have settled into a routine of cranking out decent, serviceable B-grade actioners. The quality of the films can vary from the good (Crank, The Transformer) to the not-so-good (War, Death Race), with only the occasional film such as The Bank Job suggesting Statham is capable of more. In The Mechanic, Statham punches and shoots his way through a limp remake that always feels like it needs an extra jolt of life that never comes.
In most of Statham’s films, he seems to be playing a variation on the same lonely killer that he always plays: taciturn, incredibly competent and vaguely unknowable. In The Mechanic, Statham plays killer-for-hire Arthur Bishop, the latest variation on this character. He lives alone and isolated in a house in the Louisiana swamp that you need to take a boat to get to. He regularly visits a New Orleans prostitute (Mini Anden) but won’t tell her his name. He works on his classic car, obsessively rubs dust off his vinyl collection and plans intricate assassinations. Bishop prefers elaborately planned hits that don’t necessarily seem like murders. “The best jobs are the ones where no one ever knew you were there,” he says. He seems utterly dispassionate about his work, and could just as easily have been a watchmaker or an architect instead.
Arthur’s only real human connection is with Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland, classing up the joint), his mentor and contact at the mysterious corporation they both work for. Harry gives Arthur his assignments, as well as a generous dose of paternal affection. Harry is supposed to embody the ethics and class of the older generation, even though he too murders people for money, but Sutherland somehow makes it work.
When Harry’s boss, Dean (Tony Goldwyn, in full-on weasel mode), tricks Arthur into believing that Harry is corrupt, and needs to be taken out, Arthur begrudgingly accepts the job.
Out of guilt (or the closest approximation he can manage), Arthur befriends Steve (Ben Foster), Harry’s son, who knows full well what his father did and wants to learn the trade. Unlike the cool and collected Arthur, Steve has a rage inside him, wanting revenge for his father’s death. However, the character is never defined particularly well. We don’t really know just how good or bad a guy he is. This isn’t purposeful ambiguity; it’s just lazy writing from Richard Wenk and Lewis John Carlino, the film’s screenwriters. Any depth the character has comes from Foster, who fills in the script’s sketches with some interesting personality, making Steve genuinely unpredictable, and has nice chemistry with Statham. When the two find out that Harry was killed only because of Dean’s greed, they decide to take their boss out.
The film is a remake of a 1972 film that starred Charles Bronson, although it never makes much of an argument for the need for this version to exist. Of course, Statham is no match for Bronson, in charisma or toughness, but he is about as good a substitute as we can find today.
The film was directed by Simon West, who has always had the ability to make pretty images, but he still suffers from the urge to edit the action scenes into the same kind of mulch that turned his films Con Air and Whiteout into incomprehensible nonsense. The action scenes here are serviceable but not particularly rousing, and the film often feels as joyless as Arthur himself.
The most interesting things about the movie seem to be unintentional. The movie has a weirdly stunted and backward take on sexual politics. Besides the homoerotic bond between Statham and Foster, there’s the fact that the film’s only substantial female character is a prostitute, not to mention Steve’s first hit, in which he feigns homosexuality in order to lure a target into taking him home. But the film doesn’t want us to think about those things. It doesn’t even want us to slow down and consider the ethics, or lack thereof, involved in the lives of people who murder human beings for money. Arthur lives in the movie-world fantasy that allows him to assassinate only terrible people—drug kingpins, arms dealers, murders and the like—thereby sidestepping the nasty little questions of morality that might trouble a real hitman. It just wants to leap from one action set piece to the next.
The Mechanic is an acceptable and mostly inoffensive piece of action cinema that never really convinces us it needed to exist. The requisite action scenes are there, and the cast does more with the limp screenplay than it deserves, but the film always feels oddly inert, as if nobody involved could really work up much enthusiasm for telling this particular story.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.