Are the Stath and Simon West the new Scorsese/Di Caprio? In a B-movie, not very exciting sort of way? First came the above title. Then, in quick succession, The Expendables 2 and next a remake of forgotten ‘80s Burt Reynolds-starrer Heat (from William Goldman both times out, no less). Maybe great things beckon for the duo. Nah. The Mechanic is also a remake, from the now departed auteur Michael Winner and the Olivier of his generation Charles Bronson. Clearly West and Jason Statham had a lot to live up to.
The original script for Bronson version made play of a homosexual undertone between Bronson’s hitman and young apprentice Jan-Michael Vincent (his character is the son of a boss-man Bronson has just offed). It didn’t make it to the final film, and one would be hard-pressed to argue for more than a passing suggestion of its presence in the remake (Sutherland suggests that the Stath needs companionship, and soon after he takes Foster under his wing; when the two discuss going underground, it briefly seems as if they may elope together). That said, it’s baffling why the Stath’s super professional Arthur Bishop decides to take on Ben Foster’s head-case Steve except out of guilt over having topped his one-time mentor (and Foster’s dad) Donald Sutherland. The closest the movie gets to assigning supressed undercurrents to all this machismo is during Steve’s first job, where the target is a gay hit man with whom Foster must inveigle himself. The messy altercation between Steve and this contract killer (Jeff Chase) is the high point of the movie.
Foster’s an under-appreciated actor, and he’s the best thing here, even if his part isn’t up to much. He makes the Stath seem more nuanced than he is, no small feat. I like the Stath, of course, but the B-movie Bruce Willis label only applies as a mirror to the later, humourless Bruno. Stath’s a straight man action man; funny stuff can happen around him (see Crank) but if he tries to crack wise you the tumbleweeds start gathering in earnest.
Along for the ride is Tony Goldwyn who, when he isn’t directing, has a side-line in TV and movie villains. Which is to say, casting him is a massive giveaway if the initial intention is for his character to seem honest or friendly.
But Simon West has somehow made profit from a career of crashing insensitivity to plotting, pacing, staging and editing. Still he keeps going. His debut Con Air is a horrible mess of a production that retains a certain cult appeal due to the array of great actors, and Scott Rosenberg’s script. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was a big hit, in spite of proving that he had no idea how to make a coherent movie. In the last few years he’s staged something of a comeback with medium budget (meaning, expected to make their dough back in rentals) fare, although The Expendables gig may have been a boost to his bankability. He’s probably ascended to the league of a serviceable helmer; sub-Michael Bay, without the inventiveness (not really a compliment) to create that kind of deranged spectacle. There are a few effective set pieces in The Mechanic, but where it works it is due to the plundering of the reasonably solid the original script and lucking-in with Foster. West’s advertising background has never left him, which means his scenes always feel as if they are composed of unconnected shots rather than meshing together organically. And his tin ear is there for all to hear during the musical montages, which are more than faintly embarrassing.
The Stath keeps churning them out, movies with brief titles than meld into one when you see the posters or read the plot synopsis. But you have to credit him with knowing his core audience. The Mechanic is an agreeable time-passer, but it’s no Transporter 2. Then again, few movies are.