starring Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Tony Goldwyn, Donald Sutherland
screenplay by Richard Wenk and Lewis John Carlino
directed by Simon West
by Ian Pugh SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT FOR BOTH THIS FILM AND THE ORIGINAL THE MECHANIC. Michael Winner's The Mechanic (1972) is nominally an action film, but it gets its point across with moments of extraordinary discomfort. As its primary attraction, it features Charles Bronson and Jan-Michael Vincent as contract killers with literally nothing to do, bored to tears as they stand around waiting for people to die. It's a weird and disturbing scenario, but with modern box-office expectations being what they are, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that it's been effortlessly transformed into an average Jason Statham vehicle. The particulars remain the same: Hitman Arthur Bishop (Statham) is forced to kill his mentor, Harry (Donald Sutherland), under a contract from his employer (Tony Goldwyn); perhaps feeling a pang of guilt, he takes Harry's wayward son Steve (Ben Foster) under his wing to teach him about the rules and tools of his trade. But it's all presented in a much sillier light. There's no other way to put it. When one of our assassins is instructed to poison his quarry, the characters (and the movie) deem this plan much too boring, and the whole ordeal ends in a gory brawl in which both parties stab each other with whatever they can get their hands on. It's ridiculously over-the-top, sure, and although that's to its credit, there are still too many moments where the viewer is left wanting something more substantial.
The Mechanic demonstrates itself to be "just another action flick" when Harry inherits a pearl-handled semi-automatic with a Latin phrase (and its English translation!) engraved on the barrel. Plot devices don't get much more obvious than that: it's a sentimental keepsake whose eventual purpose is to reveal that the main characters possess some semblance of a conscience. Giving Bishop and Steve a twisted sense of right and wrong wouldn't be a problem if the picture had decided to do anything interesting with the idea. As it stands, it only serves as a screenwriter's trick to prevent essentially-sociopathic characters from becoming that kiss of death for action movies in the modern era, "unlikeable." (The film comes dangerously close to celebrating what it should be decrying.) It turns out that Bishop didn't really have to kill Harry, thus entitling him and Steve to plow through a cadre of hired goons to reach the final boss. It's an easy transition into the third act, but also one that encourages us to overlook that these characters are cold-blooded killers by trade. Technically, The Mechanic doesn't owe us any excuses for devolving into a mindless actioner, but considering its mad pedigree, it shouldn't be so timid to explore deeper, darker territory.
Indeed, because it's so afraid to indulge in the same oppressive coldness of the original, this remake wildly overcompensates in that familiar Jason Statham way. Bullets and glass fly everywhere, resulting in explosions of CGI blood-splatter that seem to get messier as the set-pieces grow wider in scope. The Mechanic finally forced me to recognize that Statham's the kind of action hero who transcends the boundaries of fiction. It's not just that he plays variations on a familiar persona--he more or less always plays the same person, a little more or less scuffed-up depending on the franchise. (Bishop offers a brief lecture about the killing properties of adrenaline and epinephrine, knowledge presumably carried over from Crank.) It was long ago decided that the archetypal Statham character would be a perpetual survivor, and that's why Statham's Bishop is allowed to live where Bronson's Bishop dies so ignominiously. All that aside, you have to ask how many more hitman pictures this dude has left in him. (Anton Corbijn's The American has already rendered Statham obsolete to a certain degree.) The giggles outnumber the yawns in The Mechanic, and while I suppose that's a good thing, this brand of assassin fantasy is feeling a tad creaky these days. Originally published: January 28, 2011.