A rebuilt engine on an old model
By John Anderson
Friday, January 28, 2011
Many movies make us ask why. With “The Mechanic,” it’s more like “Why now?”
Nearly 40 years ago, the original film put Charles Bronson on the road to box-office immortality. This time, we get the sleeker, buffer, balder Jason Statham as Arthur Bishop — hit man extraordinaire, connoisseur of music, wine and large-caliber weaponry, a man whose only potential flaw is his own conscience.
It’s been done. On the other hand, what hasn’t? But the idea of remakes, we thought, was to entice viewers with an existing memory of the original, and/or its star. And to judge by all available evidence, 50-year-olds aren’t the target demographic of any Hollywood studio that isn’t called RKO.
As it turns out, “The Mechanic’s” producers have been trying to get a remake off the ground for years (17, to be exact) and things, as they tend to do in Hollywood, suddenly came together: They got Statham on board, as well as the eminently suitable Simon West (director of “Con Air,” and “Lara Croft,” among others). Richard Wenk updated the existing Lewis John Carlino script with some clever acknowledgments of the decades elapsed.
It’s still an action thriller, of course, and thus in thrall to its own brainlessness. But despite a certain emotional chill, what holds this “Mechanic” together is — no surprise — the core Carlino story.
Arthur is ruthless, cold-blooded, efficient and ingenious, the latter two qualities being what makes him interesting. The original “Mechanic” was rather famous for its dialogue-free opening, in which Bronson both stalked his prey, and exhibited his, shall we say, craft. Wenk’s tweak is both homage and reinvention, and it sets an intelligent tone for what is going to be a blood bath of a movie.
And yet the heart of it all remains the relationship between Arthur and Steve McKenna (Ben Foster), who was played in the first film by Jan-Michael Vincent (where did he go?). Arthur has, out of professional necessity, killed Steve’s father, Harry (Donald Sutherland), who was his longtime associate, and only friend. Steve doesn’t know this, and Arthur doesn’t tell him, but he does take the younger man under his lethal wing, training him the finer points of contract killing, and setting the stage for a revenge scenario of (minor) Greek proportions.
The action is good, and the storyline takes great care not to be the comedy it might have become: Arthur is, after all, supposed to be a surgical practitioner of the executioner’s art. Even though the game is about stealth, Steve blunders through each assignment with the finesse of a meat mallet. It makes for buckets of movie mayhem, but if you look at it a certain way, it’s kind of funny.
One of the more striking things about this retooled “Mechanic” is how visually sophisticated we’ve all become, even in the past 10 years. In lots of cases, what passed for mainstream cinema in 1972 wouldn’t get on television today and “The Mechanic,” 2011 edition, is a striking-looking work, combining an arty inkiness with a retro-graininess that more or less screams 1970s, albeit without the cliches and flatness.
If only you liked the people in the picture. Statham does what he does — his characters are all business all the time, but usually there are people on the margins who care about such characters, giving them a human dimension. Foster’s Steve is a weasely bit of business. His father’s decent (Sutherland always is), but he’s off to Kingdom Come very early on (no spoiler there).
The villains, naturally are unspeakable: Wenk’s best invention, such as it is, is Vaughn (John McConnell), a corpulent cult leader with an appetite for young girls, who gets his just desserts. And this is, of course, why these movies continue to have afterlives, even 40 years on, providing, in their way, a kind of (death) wish fulfillment.
Contains violence, vulgarity, sex, nudity.