I don’t know how many of you remember movies from the early 1970s, or were even alive in the 1970s, but the period from 1969 to 1975 witnessed a wealth of gritty, nihilistic B-movie dramas. The protagonists were often shady anti-heroes involved in some violent pursuit either above or below the law.
Easy Rider in 1969 probably spawned the genre (or Bonnie and Clyde in 1967), and was shortly followed by Dirty Harry (1971), Badlands (1973), Death Wish (1974), and my personal favorite, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974), among many others. The genre died out about the time Smokey and the Bandit arrived in 1977, when a smirking Burt Reynolds and an over-the-top Jackie Gleason turned it into a southern-fried mockery.
This type of film was personified by Charles Bronson, the lead in Death Wish, who typified the craggy, mumbling, speak-little-but-carry-a-big-Magnum character that was often at the center of these movies. Bronson, like Clint Eastwood, was never very likeable in his films, but he had an air of cold-blooded ruthlessness that made you cheer for him anyway, as the baddies he dispatched were always much more sinister (but much less charismatic) than he was.
One entry in the genre starring Bronson was The Mechanic, a forgettable 1972 hit-man drama. It starred Bronson as a cold-blooded assassin, who takes a bemused interest in a protege, played by Jan-Michael Vincent. Neither character was the slightest bit likeable, and the experience of sitting through the movie is akin to watching a football game between teams in whom you have no rooting interest.
People get hurt, someone eventually wins, and you just don’t care. But The Mechanic fit in with its stark contemporaries, and presented a mildly enjoyable ride of soulless violence and mayhem. You knew what you were signing onto when you sat down to watch a Charles Bronson movie.
Surprisingly, the original producers of that movie decided to make an updated film for 2011, and signed Jason Statham to play the hit-man and Ben Foster to play the apprentice. The result is The Mechanic an uneven, violent mess, that stands in stark contrast to the moral-centered heroes of contemporary crime dramas. Statham plays Arthur Bishop, a professional assassin, who is manipulated by his shady boss, Dean Sanderson (a preening Tony Goldwyn), into transgressing against his friend and broker Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland, phoning it in).
McKenna’s son Steve (Ben Foster, smoking and brooding), shows up early in the movie and Arthur, for no discernible reason other than that it’s in the script, feels an obligation to his friend Harry to take Steve under his wing and train him as an assassin. The plot, or what purports to be one, unfolds in a series of messy assassinations by Steve and inexplicable decision-making by Arthur, as they stumble their way from being wary co-killers to scheming adversaries. Mixed in with the unfolding of their murky relationship, the two manage to get along long enough to terrorize an innocent mother and daughter and dispatch hordes of Sanderson’s henchmen, culminating in an anti-climactic showdown with Sanderson that had me checking my watch.
Jason Statham certainly carries himself with a minimalist sensibility that translates well into a believable assassin, but his dispassionate scowl hints at a gooey center that suggests he really does care. You keep hoping that his Arthur will evolve into a killer with a heart, much like Statham did as his breakout character Frank Martin in the Transporter movies.
But Arthur never does evolve or care, and his uncompromising nihilism over the course of the film leaves you cold. There is no character development arc. I liked Arthur less at the end of the movie then I did at the beginning. Charles Bronson was the kind of actor that let you know early in his movies that his moral compass was busted and his character would be difficult to cheer for, and the time period in which his movies were set was replete with similar amoral fare.
But Jason Statham’s Arthur gives you little insight into his ultimately apathetic nature, and he resembles few protagonists in contemporary crime cinema. The resulting movie is soulless and unsatisfying.