CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: THE MECHANIC (2011)
by L.L. Soares and (special guest) John Harvey
(The Scene: The interior of a fancy house. A glittering home entertainment center lines one wall. There is a pristine phonograph on one shelf, and a row of vinyl albums in their sleeves. JOHN D. HARVEY gets up from the couch and goes over to the phonograph. He pulls a vinyl LP off the shelf. It’s Black Flag’s classic album “Slip It In.” LL SOARES enters the room)
JH: Hey, someone’s got good taste. But shouldn’t this be Schubert’s “Trio in E-flat (Opus 100)”?
LS: No, because we don’t play hit men in movies, like Jason Statham. We’re just two aging, bald, surly punks that review movies. And don’t ever touch my stereo again.
JH: Why not? I wasn’t going to break anything.
LS: Because it’s in the script. Besides, like I said, we’ve got a movie to review.
JH: Really? I thought you were going to pay me a load of money to take out Michael Arruda.
LS: No … well, maybe. But it’s funny you bring that up because the movie we’re reviewing today is the new Jason Statham thriller, THE MECHANIC.
JH (opening a can of Guinness): Excellent!
LS: Take a seat and I’ll start this one off.
JH (sitting down): Lead on, MacDuff.
LS: In THE MECHANIC, Jason Statham plays Arthur Bishop, a high-end hit man working for a shady organization. He’s known for doing his kills in elaborate ways that often look like accidents. The movie begins with such a kill – Statham’s Bishop drowns a Brazilian drug lord in his own swimming pool, then escapes without being detected by an army of bodyguards.
JH: Hold on. We should point out that this movie is a remake of Charles Bronson’s 1972 film, also called THE MECHANIC. Maybe not one of Bronson’s absolute best movies, but still pretty good. And this is one of the few times where I’m okay with a remake. The 1972 version has fallen off of most people’s radar screens. So, it’s ripe for a present-day upgrade and I’d like to think that the original version will get some extra attention from modern viewers.
LS: Actually, a big reason why I wanted to review this one with you is because I’m a huge Bronson fan and I wanted to see how the remake stacks up. I didn’t expect much. The trailers for this one made it look like an out-and-out action movie without the cerebral qualities and gravitas of the original film. However, the remake turns out to be just as contemplative and thought-provoking, and sticks much closer to the original film’s plot than I expected.
JH: I agree to a point. I assumed that the writers and director would jettison the vast majority of the original film’s plot. They actually kept the plot relatively faithful to the original, but I think the tone is different in this modern version. Anyway, you were telling us about story in the 2011 version.
LS: Right. Bishop is troubled to find out his next assignment is to kill Harry McKenna (played by the great Donald Sutherland), Arthur’s mentor and friend. Bishop is so troubled that he requests a meeting with the guy in charge, Dean (Tony Goldwyn), to find out what this is all about. Dean informs Bishop that McKenna has double-crossed their clandestine organization and needs to be taken out quickly and cleanly. If Bishop won’t do it, then someone else will.
Bishop agrees to do it.
At McKenna’s funeral, Bishop runs in to Harry’s son, Steve (Ben Foster), who he hasn’t seen in a while. Their relationship is friendly, but there’s an underlying tension, too. Steve was always a disappointment to his father; constantly getting into trouble, always a bit of a hot head, while Bishop was Harry’s confidante and more like a chosen son to him. There’s an obvious sense of jealousy about this on Steve’s part.
Steve knows that his father was involved in some shady business and that Bishop was involved in it, too. His life is going nowhere, so Steve tells Bishop he wants to be part of something. He wants in.
Bishop hesitates, but he’s feeling guilty over having killed a man he thought of as a surrogate father, and also feels that he owes Steve something. So, he begins to train the younger man to be a “mechanic” (an insider’s term for a hit man).
The organization he works for isn’t happy to hear about this, and tries to convince Arthur that taking on an apprentice (especially the son of a previous target) is frowned upon. Bishop responds by doing pretty much what he wants and continues to train the young McKenna.
That’s pretty much the story in a nutshell.
JH: (There’s about six empty cans of Guinness at his feet). So … you’ve got Jameson’s somewhere in this place, right?
LS: What are you trying to do? Get blitzed? I’ve a lot of guns and cool gadgets in this place, but no dialysis machine.
JH: I’m just trying to add a little authenticity. Jameson’s was Steve McKenna’s drink of choice in THE MECHANIC. Apparently, he could polish off pints of the stuff and still kick ass and convince pretty girls to have rough sex in dirty alleys. Which is to say, if you go to see THE MECHANIC, don’t expect a lot of solid logic or realism. While this movie isn’t nearly as over-the-top as Statham’s CRANK films, it’s still not designed to be taken too seriously. So, if you can let go and enjoy a suspense/action film without a lot of connective tissue between the plot points, then THE MECHANIC is right up your alley.
LS: Good point about the Jameson’s. But we’re out. You drank that earlier today, don’t you remember?
JH: Honestly but predictably … no. But the good news is that I always keep a few bottles in the back of the Jetta.
LS (sighs): Statham is always good in movies like this. He’s probably the best action hero we have these days. He has the coolness and physicality to make it believable.
JH: I also like Statham in these roles. I’ll be really disappointed if he goes off and starts making goofy PG-rated family films (I’m looking at you, Dwayne Johnson). Although, I think I preferred Bronson’s take on Arthur Bishop better. Bronson’s Bishop was more cut-throat and emotionally null, while at the same time he had an undertone that was both sad and desperate. Statham’s portrayal is more polished and almost heroic (even though he’s, you know, a paid murderer). Regardless, Statham’s performance here is solid and fun to watch.
LS: I agree about Bronson. There was a kind of cold but sad quality about him that was uniquely his own. I prefer his version of Bishop, but I like Statham well enough here.
In this version, the wild card is Ben Foster as Steve. He actually makes the part very interesting, because he doesn’t play it as just some troubled guy looking for redemption. There’s a reason he was estranged from his father, and we learn this in the first assignment that Bishop lets Steve do by himself. You see, Steve McKenna is a bit of a psycho.
His first assignment is to gain the trust of a rival mechanic named Burke (Jeff Chase) and kill him. The guy is a huge mountain of a man and has a predilection for young guys, so it doesn’t take long for Steve to get friendly with him. But Bishop gives him something to slip into the man’s drink to kill him quietly and cleanly. Instead Steve decides not to do it that way, and lets the man take him back to his house – presumably for sex – and things get pretty bloody.
This scene, which is very intense, makes it clear that Foster’s character is a complete lunatic and he’s probably not to be trusted in a tight situation. But, for some bizarre reason, Statham doesn’t cut him loose. Their relationship gets even closer, and Bishop takes Steve on his next big assignment, to take out a creepy cult leader named Vaughn (John McConnell).
JH: I became so much more interested in this movie when I saw that Ben Foster was in it. He’s one of those supporting actors that deftly steals scenes from A-List actors. Check out 3:10 TO YUMA (2007) if you want proof. To your point, nobody plays an unhinged sociopath like Ben Foster. He brings a real sense of hair-trigger menace to the film. Besides, my least favorite part of the original THE MECHANIC was Jan-Michael Vincent’s performance as Steve McKenna. Sorry, the man’s acting fills me with ‘meh.’ I know he’s probably going to show up flying AIRWOLF (1984) and fire a sidewinder missile up my nether regions, but that’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it. Ben Foster brought a lot to this movie.
LS: Yeah. In the original, Jan-Michael Vincent played a kind of bored, rich hippie who wanted some excitement in his life, which is why he latches on to Bronson’s character. Being solitary most of his life, Bronson seems to relish the chance to teach someone his craft, and to have a close friend finally in a business that doesn’t encourage that. I think Vincent was fine in the original. But Ben Foster takes the character to a completely new level in the remake. He’s much more complex, intense, and unpredictable in his motives. This is simply because Ben Foster could act rings about Jan-Michael Vincent. As for your point about Foster stealing movies away from lead actors, you could argue that Foster’s character outshines Statham’s in this movie, as his is the performance to watch.
The rest of the movie is a cat-and-mouse game, as the organization Bishop works for decides that he has become a liability by taking on this loose cannon of a protégé. And there’s always the chance that Steve could find out the truth about who killed his father.
All in all, I thought this movie worked. Not all of the decisions are completely rational (but that’s okay), especially why Bishop feels the need to keep Steve around, although guilt plays a part, as does (maybe) a kind of attraction. Bishop is not a man who normally has close relationships with anyone. Even the woman we see him spend a night with, who appears to be his girlfriend, turns out to be just a hooker (the hauntingly attractive Mini Arden) playing a part. So, his reasons for latching onto the Steve are complex.
JH: That’s really the weakest component of both versions of this movie. Even in the forgiving plot environment of an action film, I could never fully buy in to the partnership between Bishop and McKenna. It doesn’t cripple the film, but it’s a scratch you can’t quite itch.
LS: I agree. I never fully understood what Statham got from the relationship with Foster. In the original film, there’s a stronger homoerotic tone between Bronson and Jan Michael Vincent. It’s subtle, but it’s there. This aspect isn’t as clear in the remake. Maybe Statham just wanted someone to hang out with after years of being a loner?
Simon West directs the new version, and he does a fine job at the helm (Michael Winner directed the original). I also thought the acting in the new one was very good all around. From the main characters to smaller parts by actors like Donald Sutherland and Tony Goldwyn (both excellent when they’re onscreen).
I also thought the soundtrack was great. Mark Isham did the original score, and just about all of the music used in the movie is very effective.
THE MECHANIC is rated R, and it’s for a reason. The violence is harsh and bloody. These men are not afraid to get their hands dirty to get a job done (although Bishop prefers a “clean kill” if he can do it). There were several times in this movie where I felt a kind of existential chill that reminded me of the feel of the original THE MECHANIC. A 1970s kind of vibe, which is something that appeals to me. It does not hold back on its punches and it isn’t afraid to dabble in the psychology of its characters.
Toward the end, it gets a bit ludicrous, when Foster and Statham take over the streets of New York with a truck and a bus to get revenge on organization boss Dean (where are all the cops?) and there are just a few too many double-crosses and explosions as we hurtle toward the end credits. But despite some leaps of logic that seemed pretty farfetched, the overall movie grabbed me and kept me riveted throughout. I give this one three knives.
So what’s your verdict, John?
JH (listing visibly in his chair while surrounded by piles of Guinness cans and not a few empty Jameson’s bottles): Hokay … so there may be such a thing as a little too much authenticity. Anywho, I think we’re on the same track with this movie. Though, I don’t think that this modern version is as psychological as the 1972 version. And, even though the modern version is more graphically violent, I think that the 1972 movie was more grim and gritty.
But, you know, Statham’s action films tend to be slick, hip, and cool. It’s fun stuff and overall, I liked it and had fun. Though I will point out that the 2011 version of THE MECHANIC makes one major departure from the original towards the end of the movie. This is a spoiler-free review, so I’ll say no more. But this major departure did make me sigh and slump in the chair. Even with that, I’d agree that this is a three-knife movie.
LS: I think I know what you’re referring to. But yeah, the movie left me with a good aftertaste anyway. I had a good time with this one.
Speaking of taste, you owe me a fridge worth of Guinness. I’d take it out of your pay, but we don’t get paid for this. Movie criticism, it turns out, isn’t as lucrative as being paid assassins.
JH (grins sheepishly): Yeah. I’m sort of like an exorcist; I remove all the spirits from the house.
Anyway, wanna listen to that Black Flag record now?
© Copyright 2011 by L.L. Soares and John D. Harvey
LL Soares gives THE MECHANIC – 3 knives
John Harvey gives THE MECHANIC - 3 knives