At some point in the early 2000s, Jason Statham, star of the grim, ugly, but occasionally involving hit-man tale "The Mechanic," became Hollywood's go-to action hero, and it's a job he seems molded for out of Silly Putty.
For starters, he is built less like the bulging Schwarzenegger and more like Bruce Willis -- i.e., a more believable butt-kicker. His first two films, Guy Ritchie's kinetic "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch," showcased a gravelly voiced, dry-humored persona, from which he has smartly never strayed.
And in "The Transporter" films, Statham has a genuine franchise. It is a sign of his rise that Sylvester Stallone cast the chrome-domed Statham as the second lead in last year's testosterone-fueled epic "The Expendables." In the action world, this would constitute a passing of the torch, a la the closing of the door at the end of "The Godfather," minus all subtlety, and after tossing a grenade.
"The Mechanic" is so Statham it hurts. It's a film that would be right at home in a box set with the "Transporters," "Crank," "The Bank Job," etc., and that's not a criticism. But like the least of his canon -- I'm looking at you, "Death Race" -- it lacks a crucial element: fun.
And that's too bad. Because even when "The Mechanic" is a relatively nimble shoot-'em-up, it lacks the dopey joy of a direct-to-DVD Steven Seagal vehicle. Considering Statham's charms, that's a fail.
Statham plays Arthur Bishop, an assassin -- or "mechanic" -- known for his ability to cleanly take out his target, and to do so without emotional involvement. (This is, after all, an action film, and needs to hit the checklist: talented killer, "doesn't get involved," "works alone," only sleeps with hookers, etc.)
Then his mentor, Harry, played by the always welcome Donald Sutherland, is murdered, and Arthur decides it's time to start a mission of his own. But he is confronted with a would-be apprentice for this job: Harry's son, Steve (Ben Foster).
Steve's back story, like Harry's, is dispensed with in just a few lines; how either ended up where they are when we meet them remains unexplained. That's fine. We don't need it.
But everyone is underdeveloped. And the violence is not just bloody, it is horrific. There's outright homophobia, too; the film's most monstrous character is a gay hitman played to exaggerated effect for weak laughs. And the film's second most monstrous character is an easy target: a sexually deviant religious figure. And, and, and --
Then, sadly, you have an action film that's too nasty, dark and dreary to be very enjoyable, even with the likable Statham and Foster and some nifty action.
The remake well must be running pretty dry for the Michael Winner oeuvre to be reborn for the big screen. Winner is responsible for a lot of losers, some that proved successful ("Death Wish"), many that did not ("Death Wish 3").
His original "Mechanic" is a mostly uninteresting bit of early-1970s violence that has two of film history's unique stars -- Charles Bronson and Jan-Michael Vincent -- but little else to recommend it, beyond the novelty of seeing a shockingly youthful Vincent.
The 2011 edition keeps the basic plot but, predictably, amps up the intensity. After all, the director is noted action hack Simon West, the filmmaker behind such short attention span classics as "Con-Air," "Tomb Raider" and another, far-sloppier remake, "When a Stranger Calls." As much as I hate to admit it, his eye-for-explosions fits. I just wish it had "Con-Air's" joyful absurdities.
Consider "The Mechanic" an ultra-violent bit of January-February fluff that might provide modest Friday night entertainment, but also a frown. It's still a "Statham," then, but not a great one.
2 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Donald Sutherland, Tony Goldwyn
DIRECTOR: Simon West
RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes
RATING: R for strong brutal violence throughout, language, some sexual content, and nudity
THE LOWDOWN: An elite assassin prepares to avenge his mentor's death with the help of an apprentice -- the man's son.