In 1972, producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff introduced audiences to an elite assassin, played by the legendary Charles Bronson, in The Mechanic, a revenge thriller that later became a cult hit. This time around, Winkler and Chartoff have enlisted action star Jason Statham, effectively updating the hit man's tale for a new generation.
Arthur Bishop is a mechanic, a methodical hired killer with a reputation for cleanly eliminating his targets. But his detached, ordered existence is threatened when his mentor is murdered and he finds himself feeling responsible for the man's emotionally unstable son.
Statham's laser-sharp stare and gravelly voiced authority make him a worthy successor to the throne of Bronson. Known primarily for his bone-crunching action flicks, Statham really shines in The Mechanic, working opposite actors like Donald Sutherland, who portrays his mentor Harry McKenna, and Ben Foster, who plays Steve McKenna, Harry's son and Bishop's protégé
At first glance, Foster might not appear as believable in the fast-paced action movie as Statham, but his acting choices are unexpected and exciting, and his damaged vulnerability and unhinged ferocity make him seem every bit as dangerous as his co-star.
Screenwriter Richard Wenk keeps much of the structure of Lewis John Carlino's original 1972 script, and pays homage to that film by cherry-picking a few memorable lines.
Those familiar with first film will remember the opening 10 minutes, in which Bronson patiently stalks and finally eliminates a target. The filmmakers offer a fresh take on this now-cliched sequence by doing the exact opposite. Much like the victim, the audience won't see Bishop coming until it's too late.
This clever updating of the source material doesn't excuse a few rather large plot contrivances, however. Time and again we're shown that Bishop is methodical and leaves nothing to chance. But when the stakes couldn't be higher, he accepts a rather questionable piece of information from a character he neither likes nor trusts in a lazy bid to advance the plot.
My biggest problem with The Mechanic is that the second time around, the filmmakers seem frightened that we might not like the assassin and his apprentice, so they saddle Statham and Foster with ridiculously over-the-top mustache-twirling villains.
When the revolting drug-addicted cult leader Vaughn (John McConnell) waddles into frame leering at an 18-year-old admirer, the audience isn't weighing the morality of what the mechanic has been hired to do, but rather anxiously waiting for him to show up and perform the hit. And the sooner, the better, thank you very much.
Part of what was so interesting about those hit-man movies of the late 1960s and early '70s, like Le Samourai and the original Mechanic, was that we saw unflinching portrayals of hired killers. The humanity of the hit men wasn't tied to making their targets despicable; it was subtly communicated through relatable character traits: Alain Delon's assassin in Le Samourai cared about his pet bird, while Bronson's Bishop had an appreciation of fine art and music.
Those small, human moments juxtaposed with the cold-blooded murders made for a more realistic, upsetting and interesting depiction of a gun for hire.
In fact, one of the most effective moments in this remake comes directly after a particularly difficult kill for Bishop. Director Simon West gives the audience a compelling close-up of an isolated man sitting alone in his "fortress of solitude" as he processes the terrible price of his actions. Not only is it some of Statham's best work, but that glimpse of frailty does more to humanize Bishop than sending him off to kill a hundred cartoonish cult leaders.
But movies are expensive, and studios and finance companies want a likable protagonist as a guarantee on their investment. In a post-Dexter world, perhaps Hollywood has put an unofficial hit out on honest-to-goodness antiheroes.
All quibbling aside, this shiny, new update is a fun ride. The pace has been given a sharp hit of adrenaline and the action and impressive stunts are firing on all cylinders.
The Mechanic opens today.