Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Donald Sutherland, Tony Goldwyn, Jeff Chase
(CBS Films; US theatrical: 28 Jan 2011 (General release); UK theatrical: 28 Jan 2011 (General release); 2011)
It’s hired killer with a conscience time again as Jason Statham takes his human adrenal gland act to Remakeville for an update of the 1972 Charles Bronson vehicle The Mechanic. Playing Arthur Bishop, an assassin working for a shady international corporate interest, he “fixes” problems, be they drug cartel overlords, corrupt preachers, or pedophilic monsters. When asked to take out his mentor and old friend Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland), he initially balks. Once the deed is done, however, he befriends the man’s troubled son Steve (Ben Foster). The boy is undisciplined and eager for revenge. Bishop hopes to give his life direction. Little does Steve know that the man responsible for his father’s death is now teaching him how to do the very same thing.
Sandwiched into Simon West’s stylish slice of brash b-moviemaking, Statham and Foster give The Mechanic viable edge and entertainment value. They have a unique chemistry that mixes non-erotic male bonding with a similar simmering rage. Statham tends to bottle his up, unleashing it only when circumstances mandate. Foster is more fiery, using his fists (and eventual way with a weapon) to work out decades of daddy issues. The film is, in essence, one big examination of failed fatherhood. Sutherland doesn’t talk to his disowned progeny. After they meet, Steve makes it clear that Pops had more feeling for Bishop than his own flesh and blood. This allows our hero to try his hand at parenting, and for a while, it works. But as usual, a third act twist demands its own insular retribution, causing a face-off almost derailed by a formulaic familiarity.
You see, we know Steve will discover that Bishop killed his father. We know that evil boss man Dean Sanderson (Tony Goldwyn) is more of a turncoat than anyone he has “eliminated.” We know that each and every job our duo goes on will be rife with potential pitfalls, but that cinematic super-smarts and a scripted way with strategy will lead to some manner of victory. This is not a soft or subtle film. The only women in this movie end up with massive amounts of money on the dresser, or roughed up in the alley like they’re waiting for Jack the Ripper to walk by. West is not interested in love or human connections. Instead, he wants his characters kicking, free-falling, stabbing, and throttling their way through this funny little muddle called life.
For his part, Statham remains the perfect post-modern action icon - wiry and yet buff, beleaguered but willing to continue utilizing his always over amped skills to pay the bills. The Mechanic hints at a few outside dreams - yacht ownership - but for the most part, Bishop is a man-machine, emphasis on the ‘man’. He tries to lessen such a Terminator stance with a love of art and classical music, but the main characteristic we are left with is that superhuman ability to be several dozen steps ahead of his prey (and their protectors) while also being completely capable of crushing their windpipes with the back of his hand. West recognizes the aura he gives off. The camera constantly explores his stubbled face, his stern slow burn coming across vibrantly in 70 foot high celluloid. This may be his best role yet.
Foster is a more interesting choice. While clearly capable of playing psycho (3:10 to Yuma, 30 Days of Night), he is asked here to moderate said craziness with an underlying sadness. We sense a real loss when Steve’s father dies, even if Foster tries to play it off with drunken black sheep bravado. As he learns his new trade, however, our grieving young man seems to tap into a rage burning so brightly it wants to blind us. Make no mistake about it - Foster is more than able to match Statham’s gym bag. During a scene against a much taller, bigger built opponent, Steve is like a deadly spider monkey: tossed around at random, but always coming back with claws bared, eager for blood.
All West has to do is keep the pacing brisk and the asides limited and The Mechanic zings. Luckily, he follows that prescription. The first 20 minutes play out like George Clooney’s recent The American, lots of shots of a thoughtful Bishop contemplating his place in the criminal world. But once we get past the meditations and the meaningful conversation, the movie takes off and barely lets up. The script follows much of the 1972 storyline, updating and reconfiguring certain aspects to make it more contemporary. There is also none of the somnambulist slack of the Bronson bore. Michael Winner’s original wanted to be a more morose experience. Simon West is selling stuntwork, and for the most part, we buy it.
If there is one problem with The Mechanic, it comes from outside the movie itself. For months now, the trailer and tidbit clips have been circulating the media, making the movie out to be a high octane thrill ride (which it mostly is). On the other hand, said ads have also given away nearly 90% of the action beats in the film. The underwater attack? It’s there. The car crashing into the bus? Ditto. Statham free falling from the top of a skyscraper? Yep…and so on. There are no real surprises. Like a horror film giving away every single kill and/or false scare, offering up the main mayhem in The Mechanic as part of a drive to get butts in the seats will leave some feeling frisked. Most, on the other hand, will tap into the energy, all recognizability aside.
That’s because Statham and Foster find a perfect balance between ripped and ridiculous here, always making even the most impossible scenario appear plausible and plot-worthy. Granted, these are hollow men making unholy decisions for the sake of a dollar and we never quite figure out why this massive corporate institution situated in a lovely Louisiana high rise wants so many members of the world community DOA, but then that’s the way The Mechanic makes its case. Sure, we’ve seen the whole “criminal caught in a moral crisis” before. Luckily, this time around, everyone ignores the ethos and just kicks ass. Oddly enough, things seem to work out better because of it.