For fans of Jason Statham, Simon West’s remake of the hugely pedestrian 1972 Charles Bronson vehicle has much to offer. The precondition for enjoyment is that you accept the film is more about style than content, for while it is competently acted and edited, and has some good stunts and violent action, it also has plot holes that you could drive a truck through and an ending you could probably predict 20 minutes into the feature.
Statham plays Arthur Bishop, a freelance assassin whose cool methodicalness has made him a top operative for a secret agency specializing in contract killings. The nature of Bishop’s work is related first in a voice-over, and then explained again in conversation with Steve McKenna, his sidekick, just in case you didn’t pick up just how expert, cool and focused Bishop is at his work. Some beefcake close-ups of Statham’s well-toned torso are thrown into the mix for good measure.
The film opens with a sequence of Bishop in action, assassinating a cartel boss and covering up the killing as an accident. The setup is creative, the pacing fast and decisive. But when it comes to establishing the emotional core of the film, West shows much less assurance. Suffice to say Bishop decides to take on Steve McKenna, the uncontrolled, bitter and violent son of an old associate, as an apprentice in his trade. This sets up a plot driven by the themes of regret and revenge with teacher and apprentice circling each other uneasily, always aware that while they may be partners for the moment, they will eventually have to take each other on. This provides what little emotional tension there is. That isn’t really enough, but then, by the time the demands of dramatic logic make themselves felt, the bodies are piling up rapidly and it’s simpler just to forget about logic and watch the highly choreographed violence as Statham dispatches good guys and bad guys indiscriminately. Like some of the best Hong Kong martial arts movies, the fight sequences are the point, and are often more expressive than the scenes that try to explore the characters through conventional dramatic means. The contrast between Statham’s cool and the barely restrained violence of Ben Foster’s McKenna is the film’s central motif. This aspect of the film is well handled, and provides contrasting styles of violence that give variety to the fight screens, creates tension between the two leads and makes the film worth watching.
Jason Statham (Arthur Bishop), Ben Foster (Steve McKenna), Tony Goldwyn (Dean), Donald Sutherland (Harry McKenna), Jeff Chase (Burke), Mini Anden (Sarah)
For the most part, the violence of The Mechanic is hands on, relying on brutal action with simple weapons. There are a couple of sequences that might have the squeamish feeling uncomfortable, especially one involving a garbage disposal unit, but the film is a long way from pushing the limits of violence. A fight scene between Foster and one of his targets in which ordinary household implements are put to unconventional uses is brutal, but it doesn’t convey the visceral power of say the bathhouse fight in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, with which it shares some similarities.
One of the most appealing aspects of The Mechanic is its reliance on physical action over both CGI and big set piece chase scenes or explosions. This stripped down approach endures almost to the end, and then is ruined by a big finale. The Mechanic does little to extend Statham’s range, and the character he plays seems to have even less depth than Frank Martin, Statham’s freelance operative of The Transporter franchise, but it is a perfectly adept action picture with enough violent energy to carry audience members through a New Year holiday afternoon.