By most definitions, even the ones that have been rewritten over the last few years, Jason Statham may not qualify as a movie star. His highest-grossing movies have him playing second or third fiddle to Sylvester Stallone, Jet Li, and/or Mark Wahlberg, while his highest-grossing movies without big co-stars make about as much money as a decent Sandra Bullock opening weekend. Yet the balding, muscular, no-nonsense Brit does seem to get these solo movies made, and consistently — in the past three years, he’s played the lead in five movies.
Statham presumably gets these jobs because some people — people like me, for example — will watch virtually anything he stars in. Discerning Statham fans will hold out hope for another Transporter or Crank movie, but discerning Statham fans are also, by and large, secretly undiscerning Statham fans who will take a shot at a movie like Redemption (known in other parts of the world as HummingbirdTransporter series, and movies that attempt to transplant Statham’s heroics into a grimmer, more realistic context (usually, but not always, less dependent on explosions and fisticuffs).
Redemption is the latter; Statham is introduced as a war veteran turned alcoholic homeless bruiser whose hard-luck minimalism outshines would put even Jack Reacher to shame. Statham also outdoes his own stoicism his character (later christened Joey Jones; to the movie’s credit, not his real name) barely speaks for the first fifteen minutes of the movie as he stumbles from drug use to drinking to scuffles, finally landing by chance in a well-appointed and vacated London apartment.
Jones takes up residence in the apartment, steals money to give to his favorite local nun (Agata Buzek) and, eventually and in typical Statham fashion, decides to seek revenge for a friend’s murder. This process allows Statham to indulge in his reversible glamorousness: he’s a glowering thug who (given the chance) cleans up well enough to don a GQ-ready suit, not unlike the Daniel Craig incarnation of James Bond.
The problem with the movie’s unconventional approach to the revenge-movie template is that writer-director Steven Knight makes the rest of it — the tentative relationship with the nun, the briefly stolen identity, even the boilerplate-Statham business of temporarily becoming an enforcer for the Asian mafia — so much more interesting that the vengeance feels like an afterthought. More memorable than any of Statham’s abbreviated fight scenes (more savage and less athletic than his best) are the moments where Knight delays the story’s momentum, like the scene where the camera lingers on Statham and Buzek after they flee a cocktail party.
Buzek never turns into a damsel in distress, but her character’s religious calling keeps her from full-fledged love interest status; the nebulousness is actually a step up from female characters’ usual lot in movies like this. Of course, because she’s also a nun in a gritty urban thriller, bad things must happen or have happened to her; I’ll leave it to my fellow undiscerning Statham fans to figure out which it is, in this case. It’s just one of several instances where the movie’s story and backstory intrudes on itself. That parade of melodramatic turns takes Redemption from gritty to borderline lurid, and not in a fun, pulpy way — it’s an older strain of melodrama that could be traced back to silent movies, if silent movies also included lines like “tell me what happened to her or I’ll kill you with this spoon.”
It’s hard to tell if turning those threats into gory on-screen action would tip the movie back into ludicrous-fun territory or just render the whole thing uglier. Probably the latter, and Knight just barely avoids fashionable nihilism, though the movie does get more tedious on its march toward its self-consciously dark version of the title act.
Knight doesn’t have an opportunity to discuss his aims for the movie on the DVD; its only extra is a behind-the-scenes feature. The DVD treatment suggests that even if Knight and Statham saw Redemption as an opportunity to deepen the star’s persona, maybe the financiers who see tidy profits in Statham boilerplate thought of it differently — or would rather not tell the difference.