There’s a lot to like about Jason Statham, but here’s what I like best: he’s bald.
We do not have enough bald action stars. Being an action star involves too much vanity, and too much vanity leads men to wear too much fake hair. Even Sean Connery, bald as a baby’s bottom, wore a piece to play James Bond (you’d know in his later career when Connery was playing a “serious” role when the toupee came off). There are a lot of male movie stars out there — I don’t need to name names, you know who they are — whose hairlines somehow move forward with age instead of backward. It’s as if these guys are so convinced of their superiority that they can’t allow themselves get older like the rest of us mere mortals.
Statham is not that sort of star. He’s been balding since he started in movies in the late 1990s, and now he’s pretty much barren up there. The fact that he’s comfortable enough with himself to be bald onscreen speaks to the sort of persona he’s developed: tough, dependable, immune to extravagance or self-indulgence. Like the men he typically plays, Statham knows exactly who he is and is comfortable with what he does. And what he does is make small but satisfying thrillers like “The Mechanic,” a lean, no-frills midrange action picture of the kind that Hollywood and its outliers used to make by the gross in the 80s but have recently fallen casualty to modern moviemaking’s economies of scale, which demand B-movies with A-budgets.
In “The Mechanic,” Statham plays Arthur Bishop, an expert assassin for a nebulous company called, nebulously, “The Company.” Odd how the organizations in these sorts of black ops movies are always unnamed — don’t the assassins get confused which unnamed company they’re working for? Maybe that’s the point. You can’t ever rat anyone out because you don’t know who to rat on. Must be a nightmare come tax time.
Anyway, most movies about lone assassins tend to play up their hero’s solitude and anguish. They examine what it must be like to kill people for a living, and consider the toll it takes on a man’s psyche. Not “The Mechanic.” Bishop seems quite content living in his beautiful home in the bayous near New Orleans. Even when his boss (Tony Goldwyn) gives him an assignment he doesn’t want to take for reasons I won’t spoil, he goes through with it anyway. At that man’s funeral, he meets his victim’s son Steve (Ben Foster). Angry over his father’s death and unaware that Bishop is responsible, Steve convinces “the mechanic” (he “fixes things,” you see) to teach him to be an assassin. Bishop agrees but warns his pupil never to let emotion or vengeance get in the way of the job which, in a movie, is a surefire guarantee that before long emotion and vengeance will get in the way of the job.
Though Statham delivers exactly what we’ve come to expect from him, Foster really surprised me in this movie. He approaches his part as if he’s in a moody indie character study of grief and loss and not a Jason Statham vehicle about dudes who use garbage trucks as deadly weapons. A lot of actors in his situation (maybe some of the ones who have the really bad hair) would have gone over-the-top in depicting Steve’s depression. Foster bottles it all up, and is convincingly scary as a kid boiling with anger with no way to release it.
Nothing about the plot of “The Mechanic” is surprising. We predict a double-cross almost from the beginning, and there is one. We know Steve will ultimately discover the truth about Bishop, and he does. But the film, directed by “Con Air”‘s Simon West, is made with intensity and skill. The fight scenes are dramatic and Bishop and Steve’s assassination schemes are entertainingly clever. I wish the story didn’t require the usually brilliant Bishop to act like a moron in one particular moment, but whatever.
Of course, Statham is rock solid as always, delivering all the requisite ass kickings and over-the-shoulder glowers (nobody glowers over their shoulder quite like Jason Statham). I feel more comfortable forking over my twelve dollars for a movie by Statham than I do for a movie by just about anyone else. He never disappoints me. Time and again, he gives me my money’s worth. Two “Crank” films, three “Transporter”s, “The Bank Job,” “Death Race,” “Cellular” and on down the list. He’s really only made one truly unwatchable movie, Guy Ritchie’s “Revolver.” Interestingly, that’s the one movie he’s made where he didn’t play a bald guy. Coincidence?