(by Dustin Putman
A remake of the 1972 Charles Bronson picture or a more nihilistic third sequel to "The Transporter?" Take your pick. If "The Mechanic" doesn't exactly offer action aficionados anything they haven't seen before, it does at least separate itself a little with its astoundingly dark mean streak. Director Simon West (2006's "When a Stranger Calls") knows his way around wham-bang explosions, blazes of gunfire, and bloody hand-to-hand combat, but he has trouble locating even the vaguest sign of human morality in a film that, as written by Richard Wenk (2006's "16 Blocks") and Lewis John Carlino, doesn't give us a single redeemable character worth caring about. Indeed, there are no good guys here, just crooked corporate bigwigs, predatory mincemeat, stoic assassins, and one exceedingly wayward sociopath. One supposes that's okay as long as the onslaught of violence and fancy stuntwork ground us into submission, but it makes for an emotionally empty, rather icky experience all the same. Article continues below
Having pulled off his latest hit—that of Colombian cartel leader Jorge Lara (James Logan), whom he manages to drown underneath the noses of a swarm of guards and housekeepers—hired hitman Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham) returns to his home base in New Orleans to await his next assignment. When he receives it, he's none too thrilled that it is his wheelchair-bound former mentor Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland) whose head is on the platter. Does something like a friendship get in the way of his latest payday, though? Not a chance. Soon enough, Harry is dead and Arthur, feeling indebted to him, takes his grown, loose-cannon son Steve (Ben Foster) under his wing. Steve does not know that Arthur killed his father, but he does acknowledge that he himself has an anger management problem that it turns out brutally killing people for money helps to alleviate.
As a vessel to simply show off pyrotechnics while raising one's testosterone levels, "The Mechanic" is a competent action film that achieves these very things. The trouble is that there should be someone—preferably the protagonist—to latch onto, to grow to understand, and to hopefully sympathize with. This never happens. Lead characters Arthur Bishop and Steve McKenna are the ones the viewer is asked to follow, but they are just as despicable as anyone else on screen. An attempt at giving Arthur a sensitive side goes as far as his penchant for listening to classical music in his downtime, while Steve, for all intents and purposes, is an unhinged soul practicing to be a serial killer straight out of 1981's infamously controversial William Friedkin thriller "Cruising." In one particularly ugly sequence, Steve catches the eye of their current target in a bar, a seemingly kind gay man (Jeff Chase) whom he goes home with and brutally murders following a round of foreplay. In another scene, they quiet a devoutly religious drug addict forever. And, in a subsequent set-piece, they terrorize a man's innocent wife and daughter as a means of forcing information out of him. Steve is basically a lost cause, a young guy quickly losing himself to the allure and power that snuffing other people out gives him, but there is no reason why Arthur couldn't have been written with at least a sliver of a conscience. Instead, he goes about his job with the cool-headed dutifulness of a nine-to-five office worker, showing no regret for the lives he is destroying along the way.
Give credit to Jason Statham (2009's "Crank: High Voltage") for one thing: he has found his particular niche—action movies and crime capers—and is clearly happy to stay there and ride it out for as long as his usually low-budget projects make money. Most actors in his position eventually try to branch out to other genres and different sorts of characters, but not him. As long as his muscles are ripped and there's a firearm in his hand, he has no trouble repeating himself over and over. As Arthur Bishop, Statham is fine but untested in a two-dimensional role that neither develops nor deepens. A subplot involving an understanding, good-spirited woman (Mini Anden) he frequently meets for sex while passing through is afforded two or three scenes before being dropped altogether. In the part of Steve McKenna, Ben Foster (2009's "Pandorum") is as intense and serious-minded as ever, overshadowing Statham's more perfunctory contributions with the kind of eye-catching performance you'd expect to see in a less throwaway film. He tries valiantly to shade his character with more than the script gives him, and succeeds more often than not. Still, that does not change the fact that Steve is unlikable and rather scuzzy.
An ability to suspend disbelief is typical of films like "The Mechanic," but things should at least be rooted in a version of reality. By the time Steve escapes from the fiery explosion that a head-on collision between a car and a bus makes—the car literally disappears into the bus—and he and Arthur proceed to blast machine guns throughout busy city streets without even a hint of a cop or police car around, logic evaporates and silliness takes over. The conclusion, while featuring a mildly clever, if predictable, plot twist, only confirms what the viewer has come to already realize: Arthur and Steve are both corrupt and set in their ways. Their lack of detectable arcs makes "The Mechanic" decidedly pointless. What are we supposed to take away from the film? Director Simon West would probably prefer that we not bother to think about it, or anything, at all.