Jason Statham is a worker. He’s released three films in 2008 alone (“Transporter 3” hits theaters today), and his characters are defined by labor, whether he’s playing a driver, a thief or an assassin. They have names evocative of union workers and hockey players: Frank Martin, Terry Leather, Chev Chelios. These are single-minded anti-heroes out to complete a mission. Nothing concerns them but the job, whether it’s a “Bank Job,” an “Italian Job” or a “Transporter” gig. The thrills in a successful Statham film come from this focus — the hurtling narratives rarely pause for backstory, concerned only with bridging the gap between a plan and its execution.
Statham’s route to tough guy stardom was circuitous. For a decade, he toured the world as a member of Britain’s national diving squad, finishing 12th on the platform at the ’92 World Championships, but amateur sports weren’t paying the bills. So he’d set up shop outside of Harrods, and, as he told IGN, “I used to put money in my pocket while working on the street corners, selling perfume and jewelry, and other goods that were supposedly expensive.”
Then he scored a modeling gig and caught the attention of Guy Ritchie, who was intrigued by his black-market experience. Roles in “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998) and “Snatch” (2000) followed, and this ex-diver/hustler/model would soon be shirtless on the big screen for years to come. “Lock, Stock” played on his working-class shyster past (Statham admits he plays a version of himself in the film), and that determined poor Cockney criminal has informed his performances since, from ruthless killers to small-time operators.
The plots in his best work abound with questions of geography, how to get from here to there. “The Transporter,” “Cellular” and “Crank” are all premised on a race against time, whether he’s tasked with breaking up a human trafficking ring, handling a kidnapping or finding a cure for an exotic poison. The action in all three is based on navigating urban spaces and improvising ways to keep moving at all costs. Such improvisation leads to some of the most imaginative action scenes in recent years — think of the oil slick brawl in the first “Transporter,” where Frank Martin douses himself in crude to slide away from his pursuers, or the mall chase in “Crank,” where Chelios wedges his car into an escalator and surfs it to the next floor. Statham isn’t the protagonist in “Cellular,” but he still manages to wheel through Santa Monica, snatching kids along the way. When asked how he’d describe “Crank,” Statham said, “”Run, run, fucking run. I do not stop. Well, that’s what the movie’s about.” It’s also a concise description of his entire output.
These ingenious set pieces were conceived by different directors, but the characters’ improvisatory spirit is similar. Whether it’s the balletic, over-the-top combat of fight choreographer/director Cory Yuen (“The Transporter”), or the straight-ahead brawling lensed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (“Crank”), Statham is great at conveying a fighter’s thought process. In “The Transporter,” Frank is a calm surveyor, so Statham plays him ramrod straight and narrow-eyed, exhibiting mulish determination in the most absurd of fight scenes, turning coconuts into boxing gloves and deploying a fire hose as a kick to the crotch. He walks with a tightly wound spring in his step, every sinew straining to be provoked. Obsessed with order and the principles of his job, his gestures are precise, his fights mathematical problems to be solved.
“Crank”‘s Chelios is Frank’s inverse: a frantic, dissolute jokester assassin, his face plastered with a dour smirk. Injected with a poisonous “Beijing cocktail,” the only thing that can delay its deadly business is a constant flow of adrenaline, an ingenious bit of self-reflexive plotting where action is an end in itself — the perfect expression of the Statham persona. In a cannonball of a performance, he blasts through Los Angeles, snorting nasal spray, injecting epinephrine and slamming his hand in a waffle iron, always on the edge of cracking up.
It’s a brilliant piece of slapstick, epitomized when he asks his cabbie to jack up the radio when “Achy Breaky Heart” hits the airwaves, and fruitlessly shudders to the music, trying to mosh in the backseat to release those precious endorphins. Whimpering the lyrics to stay alive, he cuts a pathetic figure, and along with exhibiting his sly, self-deprecating sense of humor, Statham introduces an unexpected note of melancholy. In the midst of a madcap hospital break-in, his face ashes upon entering an aged man’s deathbed, recognizing the decay in himself, echoed later in the exquisitely surreal final shot, calling his girlfriend one last time as he falls, incredibly slowly, to his death (although he’ll revive in time for the sequel, due next year).
With this year’s “The Bank Job” and “Death Race,” Statham continues to explore the melancholic and anti-heroic contours of his persona. He’s a blue-collar guy in both films (shady car dealer and factory worker), inadvertently roped into a criminal conspiracy that he must stubbornly unravel, through heists and (of course) murderous demolition derbies. His Terry Leather in “The Bank Job” is a low-life striver who engages in a subtle minuet of longing and retreat with the local femme fatale, consisting of a few passing glances in the midst of the post-heist intrigues. It’s a resourceful, solid turn, and another example of the remarkable continuity and elasticity of Statham’s performances, which are slowly testing his typecast boundaries by introducing mortal thoughts and flickers of romance into his overarching professional obsessions.
[Photos: “Cellular,” New Line Cinema, 2004; “Crank,” Lionsgate, 2006]