The Hollywood career of Jason Statham is reminiscent of Jean-Claude Van Damme. Doggedly working the straight-to-DVD schlock martial-arts beat, Statham has laboriously clambered to the top-rank of action stars. Like Van Damme it’s got to the point where no-one even feels the need to hand-wave away his accent – Statham just IS.
Sadly, and also like Van Damme, there’s been little output of quality to really back this ascent, and nothing in ‘The Mechanic’ to buck this trend.
It’s not even possible to peg this film as a straightforward genre shoot-em-up. Remaking one of the interminable run of Michael Winner-directed, Charles Bronson starring shockers of the 1970’s, ‘The Mechanic’ looks at ‘Leon: The Professional’ and poses the question, “what if Natalie Portman’s Mathilda was a twenty-something sociopathic Edward Norton lookalike?”
Statham plays his go-to role, a shady, solitary hitman for a shady, unsavoury corporation whose shady chief tells Statham’s Arthur Bishop to off kindly old wheelchair-bound Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland) – who also happens to be Statham’s best mate and mentor – because he’s all corrupt or something.
Statham caps Sutherland, but then starts to feel remorse, to the extent that he takes Sutherland’s estranged son Steve (Ben Foster) under his wing and begins to teach him the ropes. And knives and guns and poisons.
It’s a silly story made more implausible by the creation, in Steve McKenna, of one of the most annoying, whiny and instantly detestable screen sidekicks since Shia Le Boeuf in ‘Indiana Jones’ 4. Foster has a pretty thankless task, but doesn’t even try. It’s as if the producers realised that the only way to create audience attachment to Statham’s character was by pairing him with someone utterly unlikeable.
This is exacerbated by the same slightly creepy unpleasantness that leaves such a bad taste in the mouth from Statham’s ‘Crank’ films. ‘The Mechanic’s got the lot; sadistic beatings, prostitution, paedophilia, torture of a teenage girl (by the nominal good guys) – unpleasant mean-spiritedness abounds.
What entertainment there is comes from the truly risible dialogue. Some is intentional (one good running joke involves key henchmen being distracted at crucial moments by mundane phone-calls, “I’m not paying THAT for a four-bedroom!”) Most is unintentional, such as one medicinal round of rock-paper-scissors, “Epinephrine is toxic when combined with adrenaline.” “…but ketamine counteracts adrenaline!”.
However such entertainment is ultimately undercut by the unsympathetic and appropriately mechanical lead performance, something true of all Statham films.
Indeed his apparently unstoppable appeal is hard to fathom. His one-offs are grindingly mediocre; his franchises veer from the pedestrian (‘The Transporter’) to the tasteless (‘Crank’); he has not had a ‘Predator’, nor a ‘Rambo’ nor a ‘Die Hard’, yet has been put on the same pedestal as Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis in ‘The Expendables’. At least Van Damme had a certain clunky charisma – Statham cannot claim even that.
In this context perhaps the provenance of the film is apt: Statham is arguably a worthy heir to the impassive, granite-faced charmlessness of Charles Bronson.