REVIEW: Jason Statham Keeps the Gears Going in The Mechanic, But Barely
What if, as if in a dream, Donald Sutherland appeared before you -- the Donald Sutherland of today, silver-fox handsome and turning a throwaway role into something rich and refined -- only to be whisked away and replaced with...Ben Foster? To quote Johnny Rotten: Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?
That's the essential problem with The Mechanic, Simon West's remake of the 1972 Michael Winner movie. The picture's single saving grace -- aside from Sutherland's brief appearance at the beginning -- is its star, Jason Statham, whose laconic purr is the motor that keeps the thing going during its rough patches. But mostly, The Mechanic creaks and groans as it goes through the motions, and not even its lavish violence -- which includes much smashing of heads and a nasty screwdriver stabbing -- is particularly electrifying.
That's unfortunate, because the picture opens with some delightful Colombian-gangster mishigas, in which a dark-haired smoothie is strangled from below while taking a swim in his princely indoor pool. You can guess who's doing the strangling: Statham's Arthur Bishop is an ace hit man who thinks of every detail. When his victim's security detail checks in from an overhead balcony, we see the corpse's limbs paddling gracefully through the water, obviously being manipulated by you-know-who below.
But aside from some elements of a later scene involving a rival hit man (a tank of a guy who happens to love chihuahuas), that's about as much wit, visual or otherwise, as you'll get in The Mechanic. West spends a great deal of time attempting to map the contours of Bishop's existential suffering: We see him retreating to his rural New Orleans hideaway, where he winds down after work by putting a mournful piano recording on his superglam, retro-elegant turntable. Bishop reads alone, he eats alone, he listens to the urgent cheep-cheep of the cicadas alone -- he's the loneliest hit man. When his close friend and mentor, wheelchair-bound Harry McKenna (Sutherland), reminds him that he needs human companionship, he retorts, "I've got you."
Unfortunately, not for long. Sutherland's two early scenes with Statham are the best in the movie, most likely because Sutherland gives Statham so much to respond to. It's not that Sutherland is doing much -- it's what he's not doing that counts. Even though these two characters exchange only a few lines, the ghost of their long friendship is always in the room with them: McKenna makes a home for it in his half-sparkling, half-exhausted eyes. Statham's Bishop responds as if he's half in awe of the older man and half dependent on him; there's some complexity between these two characters that emerges from something beyond the lines they're given.
All of that goes out the window when McKenna makes his exit and his ne'er-do-well son, Steve (Foster), emerges from the shadows to indulge in a violent sulkfest. Bishop, feeling he owes a debt to his old friend, takes Steve under his wing as a hit-man trainee. And this is the point where you must search your soul and ask, How much Ben Foster does any single movie need? For me, his rickety repertoire of tics, twitches and tight little half smiles doesn't go very far, and he doesn't seem to hold much charm for Statham, either. (In the original, Jan-Michael Vincent played Steve to Charles Bronson's Bishop, and the casting makes sense: Vincent has a face you want to trust; Foster has a face you don't trust for a minute.) The Mechanic -- adapted by Richard Wenk, from the original script by Lewis John Carlino -- isn't badly written, and its numerous gunfights and explosions are reasonably well-staged. It's the humans that are the problem: Foster is too wound up and Statham, charming as he is, just seems ground down. Together they lead the movie through its paces, but it's hard to feel much for them as they're repeatedly beaten and bruised, physically and, in Bishop's case, emotionally.
Statham is a marvelous action-movie actor, and there's nothing wrong with that. But his nuanced turn in Roger Donaldson's marvelously entertaining The Bank Job suggests he's got more to give. Does he always need to be the one busting heads? That's all the movies seem to want from him these days, and it's a shame. He has a terrific voice, a soft rasp that's sometimes no louder than the sound of a razor against whiskers. And he moves beautifully. West (who has worked largely in TV since making Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in 2001) at least takes advantage of that, giving Statham -- a former Olympic diver -- numerous opportunities to get into the water: When his cueball head emerges from the depths, he makes for a most unusual water baby.
But is that enough for Statham? He's built a decent action career, so there's no need to feel sorry for him. But sometimes when I watch him, I feel sorry for us. The way mainstream movies are cast and made today, even if Statham wants to break out of the niche he's made for himself, he may not be able to. And while I wouldn't want to see him stuck in, say, some pokey, underlit indie movie about a beaten-down suburban guy trapped in a lifeless marriage, it would be a relief to see him play something beyond his typical ruthless-but-sensitive tough guy. For now, at least, we have the voice: He lends it to Tybalt in the upcoming (if not particularly promising) Gnomeo and Juliet. If he can survive playing a Shakespearean garden gnome, then we'll know he can do just about anything.