Thursday, January 27, 2011


Warning: Spoilers for both versions of The Mechanic.

The new Jason Statham-led remake of The Mechanic, a mostly forgotten 1972 thriller starring Charles Bronson, is itself mostly forgettable, just another in a long line of Statham action movies in which he shoots and punches people and looks pretty badass doing it. I like Statham as an action star, and I think that when given the right material (in movies like Crank or The Bank Job), he can really deliver. He's physically impressive but also a pretty decent actor, and he can add a bit of sly humor to a scene when it's called for. (Statham definitely beats out Bronson, who pretty much always sounds like that old Simpsons parody where he threatens to "fix Emmett.") Statham does what he can in The Mechanic, but it's a B-movie throwaway with nothing creative to add.

Taken on its own, neither version of The Mechanic is anything special, but it's interesting to compare the way B-movies then and now went about thrilling their audiences. In the original, directed by Michael Winner (who also directed Bronson in three Death Wish movies), the kind of jazzy experimentalism of mainstream 1970s American cinema seeps through in the wordless opening sequence (15 minutes before there's any dialogue) and the amoral, almost nihilistic tone. In broad strokes, the movies have the same plot: Veteran hitman Arthur Bishop (Bronson/Statham) is ordered to take out his longtime friend and mentor (Keenan Wynn/Donald Sutherland), which he does with little hesitation. He then finds himself taking on his mentor's son, Steve (Jan-Michael Vincent/Ben Foster), as a protege while the son has no idea that Arthur killed his father.

In the original, both Arthur and Steve are completely cold-blooded killers; we never get the sense that Arthur cares (or even knows) why he's killing the people he has to kill, and he shows virtually no remorse over having to off his old friend. Steve, too, seems to relish the joy of killing once Arthur takes him under his wing, and is completely indifferent to the fact that his father was murdered. In both versions of the film, Steve eventually tries to kill Arthur -- in the original, it's because Steve has become an effective hitman on his own, and Arthur's employers hire him to take Arthur out. Just as Arthur killed his own mentor without a second thought, so too does Steve blithely kill Arthur. It's only as Arthur is in his death throes that he admits to the murder of Steve's father, to which Steve responds with a smirk and a shrug: "Oh, you killed him?"

In the new version, Steve is tortured by his dad's death and driven to revenge -- part of the reason Arthur takes Steve in is to prevent him from doing something foolish in pursuit of ill-advised vengeance. When Steve discovers that it was Arthur who killed his father, he can't hold back, and he rigs an explosion to kill Arthur. Of course, a modern action movie can't end with the death of the hero, so while Bronson's Arthur dies writhing on a hotel-room floor after being poisoned, Statham's Arthur stealthily rolls away from his truck instants before it explodes, escaping to ride away into the sunset at the end of the movie. Steve isn't so lucky: In both versions, he succumbs to a car bomb planted by Arthur before Steve turned on him, clearly meant as betrayal insurance. But the effect is different: In the original, both amoral, hedonistic men finally pay the price for their arrogance, while in the new version the hero defeats the villain and lives to fight another day.

And that's the main thing: In 1972, Bronson could play a basically heartless killer as the main character of a cheap thriller and never have to deal with crises of conscience or moral equivocation. He was an assassin and he killed people -- end of story. But in 2011, Statham can't do the same thing. His Arthur has to kill only bad people (arms dealers, drug kingpins), and when he betrays his mentor, it has to be because he was being deceived, and he ultimately has to seek vengeance on behalf of the wronged party. The new film concocts a conspiracy and a villain, one that Arthur and Steve can unite in defeating because they both want to enact justice for Steve's father. In Winner's film, there's no justice except perhaps for the karmic justice that leaves both main characters dead at the end. In Simon West's take, the bad guys get punished and the good guys walk away. Moral complexity is gunned down, beaten senseless and blown to bits.

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