In the quick, capable, thoroughly bloody action film The Mechanic, Jason Statham plays Arthur Bishop, a seasoned professional who kills people for a living. If you’re thinking this is not exactly a stretch for the star of the Transporter films and longtime Guy Ritchie muse, ask yourself if you really want to see Statham play a befuddled professor or a distracted dad. Playing a tight-lipped, brutally efficient assassin is his gift, and if you have no objection to the sensation that the copious gore his characters generate threatens fly off the screen and land sloppily in your lap, this gift is yours to enjoy.
Arthur is, in the film’s terminology, a mechanic: an assassin who carries out assignments for a nameless syndicate with a seemingly endless target list. He has two bosses, one of whom, Dean (Tony Goldwyn) — a buttoned up creep who looks like he’d be right at home on Capitol Hill — he barely tolerates. But Arthur is very fond of his old mentor Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland). The wheelchair-bound, rheumy-eyed Harry returns his affection, even expressing some paternal concern — upon Arthur’s return from Colombia, where he’d neatly dispatched a drug lord in the film’s opening set piece — that the hitman needs a companion. Not long after, a cruel twist of the trade leaves Harry dead and lands Arthur exactly that — in the form of his mentor’s estranged son Steve (Ben Foster, who starred alongside Woody Harrelson in last year’s The Messenger), a hothead intent on avenging his father’s murder.
The Mechanic, directed by Simon West (Tomb Raider), is a remake of a 1972 Charles Bronson film of the same name. Like the 70s icon, Statham is the strong silent type; but while Bronson played the MacGyver of assassins (in the movie’s first hit, he takes out his mark using a gas stove, a book and a teabag), Statham’s Arthur has a tendency to get his hands bloody. Emotionally though, he’s a little softer — guilt ridden, for example, over one contract that Bronson’s Arthur didn’t even blanch at. It’s that guilt which drives him to mentor Steve McKenna; he’s trying to do dead Harry a favor by at least arming this loose cannon with some skills. Bronson’s Arthur, in contrast, is motivated to mentor Steve (played in 1972 by the ludicrously pretty Jan-Michael Vince) because he appreciates his cool criminal pathology. “You seem to have the aptitude,” Bronson says.
The new Steve has less aptitude than a vampire-like thirst for blood and a dangerous bravado. He’s the definition of the unprofessional, shaking off Arthur’s slick, impossible-to-trace killing methods in favor of all-out bludgeoning. After he makes a stomach-turning mess of his first assignment, in which he plays convincing bait for a gay mark, we have no confidence in Steve as a pupil. It seems uncharacteristic of Arthur to put himself at risk by continuing to keep Steve under his wing. Nonetheless, we’re grateful, because the interplay between dry Arthur and crazy, caustic Steve is what makes the movie fun. “Couldn’t you have found us someone more attractive to spy on?” Steve complains to Arthur midway through their stakeout of an obese religious guru.
Foster, a slight, bandy-legged actor whose intensity makes up for his lack of pretty features, is just the foil Statham needs. Whereas Foster is a deeply authentic actor — watch his eyes in the scene where he quizzes Arthur about what it’s like to kill someone he knows; he plays it like there’s an Oscar on the line — Statham generally seems deeply authentic only when he’s strangling someone. But when reacting to Foster he practically brims with emotion (on the Statham scale, at least). It’s the classic case of an excellent tennis player elevating the game of his opponent.
The stunts and effects are fairly typical (except perhaps for a leap from a skyscraper that felt impressively, disturbingly real) and there’s one of those climaxes involving explosions, machine guns and countless wrecked cars in an urban center (entirely unpoliced, naturally) that did nothing for me but will doubtless get the pulses of plenty of 14 year-old boys racing. I hung on though, because I wanted to see mentor and mentee work out their differences. In the original, no one gets out alive. Would today’s natural born killers go merrily off into the sunset together? The only things approaching a sunset glow here are the fireball explosions, but the film’s resolution, like the rest of the action porn, has a sly, likeable quality.