Statham and Foster spin their wheels in the remake of a Seventies crime genre favorite.
A decade ago, around the time of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven remake, someone involved with the film (maybe the director himself) said you can more easily remake a mediocre film than you can a well-made one. It’s a good theory: presumably the audience is more forgiving of mistakes made in the retrofitting of the story material, and at the same time possibly more eager to embrace improvements. American culture is proudly all about the upgrade, and for better or worse consumers are predisposed by tradition to equate the new with the improved, whether the connection proves true or not.
The target audience of director Simon West’s The Mechanic, a thunderous and messy remake of the little but fondly remembered 1972 Charles Bronson actioner of the same name, won’t give a shit if the film improves or denigrates its predecessor. Why should they? Within the narrow scope of shoot-em-up action films it’s neither remarkable nor terrible, and largely indistinguishable from star Jason Statham’s franchise of Transporter adventures. If you like those films, here’s more of the same.
Statham takes over Bronson’s role as Arthur Bishop, a contract hitman employed by an international company that contracts assassinations, murders, and vengeance killings to its stable of operatives. As Bishop explains, some killings need to be staged to resemble accidents and some need to send a clear message. Both kinds seem to require meticulous planning and preparation, including the opening set piece execution of a vaguely defined South American millionaire: Bishop kills the man in his tightly guarded mansion and then stages an unnecessarily elaborate escape.
Returning to his New Orleans base of operations, he meets with his mentor and friend McKenna (Donald Sutherland) but shortly thereafter learns the company has marked the older man for termination. A company executive (Tony Goldwyn) tells Bishop that McKenna sold information about a mission to a third party, resulting in the deaths of several operatives. Bishop reluctantly agrees to execute McKenna himself, carrying out the hit but staging the event to look like a carjacking.
Mulling over his guilt, he’s reunited with McKenna’s estranged son Stephen (Ben Foster), a ‘neer-do-well with a bad temper and, thanks to his father’s death, an aimless wellspring of rage. Bishop stops Stephen from executing a small time criminal and agrees to train him as an assassin, a regimen that includes buying a chihuahua and loafing around an Uptown coffee shop.
The revelation of those instructions’ hidden purpose, along with the final triple-cross conclusion, offer the only true – if moderate – surprises of the film. The rest is go-through-the-motions shoot-em-up, albeit motions handsomely and engagingly staged by West and his stunt team. Statham has done this enough by now to make it look easy, and the gunfights have a kinetic brutality to them that’s reminiscent – most likely deliberately so – of the early films of John Woo.
Wikipedia tells us the critics reviewing the 1972 version noted both the father-son rivalry between Bishop and Stephen and also a “latent homosexual bond.” But West and this latest version don’t bother with infusing the 2011 version with a murky subtext; the script lets the two men keep their thoughts to themselves tough-guy style; even when Stephen willfully disobeys instructions Bishop is slow to criticize, and their final confrontation outside a gas station is played with a minimum of pathos. It’s a lucky thing Statham and Foster have the laconic acting tradition to fall back upon – watching them open up might prove embarrassing.
As for the performances, as noted above Statham is an old hand at this. Foster, though improved since his dreadful performance in 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma, doesn’t often do more than smirk or act cocky on-camera. Yet his mugging, meant to telegraph detached, contemptuous cool, comes off as bratty next to Statham’s reserved-to-the-point- of-boredom swagger. Swedish actress Mini Anden gets the only substantive female part, playing Bishop’s prostitute love interest; their sex scene early in the film is a textbook example of “gratuitous nudity.” (I’m guessing her character is a prostitute, though she sometimes acts like a girlfriend; Bishop gives her money and she doesn’t know his name.)
Eventually The Mechanic doesn’t amount to anything more than a place-holding link in the careers of its two stars. Statham will certainly make more action movies, and for whatever reasons Foster seems on his way to becoming a durable screen presence as well. The Mechanic isn’t a bad film: it’s not a disappointment or travesty to the original, and it’s not a good film or improvement either. It’s just in the middle all the way around, until the last five minutes when things get very hairy and very unpredictable all at once. Now with its home video release you can watch those first, skipping to the best part. Everything else will be the same when you go back.
- Michael Kabel