By Dave Wilson | January 27, 2011
Director: Simon West
Writer(s): Richard Wenk (screenplay), Lewis John Carlino (screenplay, story)
Starring: Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Tony Goldwyn, Donald Sutherland, Jeff Chase, Mini Anden
I never thought I’d admire the subtlety of a Charles Bronson movie, but the new remake of The Mechanic, starring Jason Statham and Ben Foster, makes the 1972 film look a lot more like The Conversation than it should. This is not to say that the original was a good film. In all honesty, Michael Winner’s film was a mediocre thriller with a few nice moments and an above-average performance by Bronson, who does well in his role as a methodical hitman who takes a young Jan-Michael Vincent under his wing.
The new film, directed by Simon West (Con Air), begins with the same essential premise, includes similar twists and double-crosses, and even indiscriminately rips stray details and scenes right out of the original, only to get everything completely, laughably wrong—plotting, motivation, dialogue, and payoff. Again, we’re talking about getting a Charles Bronson movie wrong.
Jason Statham plays Arthur Bishop, a cold-hearted loner and calculating hitman who works for a shadowy organization that turns to Bishop to take on its most sensitive cases—you know, assassinations of major threats like drug lords or millionaire televangelists. Bishop takes great care in his research so that he can get in and get out, making neat, targeted strikes, and then slipping away undetected. We’re told that Bishop is a methodical planner; almost every hit that we actually see completely contradicts this statement.
Like all movie hitmen, Bishop lives alone, drinks tumblers of whisky, and listens to chamber music on a turntable—at least it’s not jazz! After all, he’s an artist and he has to get in the right mood to slide open his secret panel and tack up the photos and diagrams he’s collected for each assignment. His one meaningful connection is to his mentor and underworld colleague, Harry McKenna, played by a wheelchair-bound Donald Sutherland, twinkle-eyed, snarling, and mischievous, who—big surprise—just happens to be Bishop’s latest assignment. Will he? Won’t he? The suspense will just about kill you.
Harry has a wayward son named Steve, played by Ben Foster, who, I think it’s fair to say, has anger management issues. When Harry does in fact turn up dead (apparently whacked by a carjacker in an office parking lot), Bishop and a vengeful Steve form an inexplicable partnership (“I want to do what you do,” Steve says). Even though Bishop is a loner, has no emotional entanglements, and takes great care in his meticulous planning for each job, he readily agrees to train this clumsy, violent hothead as a partner. Why? Do we believe for a minute that this cool professional, whose entire livelihood absolutely depends on his acting alone and undetected, would take under his wing someone as manic, impulsive, and frankly, as stupid as Ben Foster’s character? Example of stupidity: upon learning of his father’s death at the hands of a carjacker, Steve declares that he should go out and kill every carjacker in New Orleans. Is this a casual line tossed out in a moment of anger? Nope. We cut to Steve sitting in a car in a crappy neighborhood in the dead of night, where he is immediately set upon by a carjacker, who he overpowers and beats to a pulp, shouting, “Is this the gun you used? Is this the one you killed him with?” Personally, I think it might take him a while to find the right carjacker using this approach.
Well, despite this promising new partnership everything goes downhill. Next thing you know, Bishop and Steve are doing things like scaling skyscrapers in broad daylight while wearing black jumpsuits; I would have thought this particular disguise might be more effective at night. The wheels grind on, and all of the same tired clichés come out to play. The organization that employs Bishop is not very happy about him taking on a partner, etc. Can Bishop and Steve really trust each other? Etc.
And despite Bishop’s reputation as a master hitman, every job that these two pull results in catastrophic, flame-engulfed set pieces, attracting dozens of minions, setting off alarms, shutting down buildings, or leveling entire city blocks. Needless to say, the organization that employs Bishop is not very happy about this. In fact, something must be done to stop them.
One of the elements that the original film got right was the relationship between Charles Bronson and Jan-Michael Vincent, who is just as icy and calculating as his mentor. You understand immediately that Bronson sees himself in the younger man, and that Vincent views Bronson as a kind of surrogate father. In the new film, it feels more like Foster ran out of rent money and needs a place to crash. The original film also nicely captured this idea of hitman-as-artist, with Bronson biding his time, tracking his kills, studying their habits, and waiting till the time was right. In the new film, Bishop is just another character in an action movie. There is nothing elegant or well-researched about the careless mayhem he sets off wherever he goes, none of which ever draws much attention or has any consequences—well, not until it’s convenient.
We’re left with poorly constructed characters, an implausible, cliché-ridden plot, and some of the worst dialogue you’re likely to hear this year. At one point, underworld boss Tony Goldwyn says something like, “I’ll put a price on your head so high, when you see your reflection in the mirror you’ll want to blow your own head off.” The rest of the time, the people in this movie explain everything. When one character is lured by a phone call from Bishop through an office building and past his own security, he remarks appreciatively that Bishop has just lured him through the building and made him bypass his own security. Ouch.
One detail that The Mechanic lifts wholesale from the original is Bishop’s ritual with the turntable and the chamber music. Of course, Bishop’s favorite track is Schubert’s Piano Trio in E Flat, which was used to great effect in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Instead of proving to me that Bishop was a cultured artist, this detail inspired another train of thought: (1) I think he’s listening to the Barry Lyndon soundtrack, (2) I wonder what happened to my copy of the Barry Lyndon soundtrack?
If you’re tempted to see The Mechanic for Donald Sutherland, it’s true, he’s one of the best things about this movie. But then again, he’s only in it for about eight minutes. Jason Statham does have a certain presence onscreen with his piercing gaze and gravelly voice, and Ben Foster brings a well-meaning, hysterical intensity to a character which just isn’t there on the page.
Here’s an analogy for you. Like Ben Foster’s character, Steve, The Mechanic is loud, chaotic, brutal, and inept. As the woman behind me said when the lights came up, “That wasn’t even fun bad. It was just bad.”