Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Movie Review: The Mechanic

Arthur Bishop is the very best at what he does for a living, which is kill people.  He is what’s known as a “mechanic,” the most thorough of assassins.  He performs untraceable hits for substantial sums of money.  He leads a solitary life that doesn’t allow for any friends save for Harry Mckenna (Donald Sutherland), who is aware of Arthur’s occupation and is at ease with it.  When Arthur is murdered, his estranged son Steve (Ben Foster) wants payback.  He wishes to become a mechanic and demands that Arthur school him in the trade.  Arthur is initially reluctant, but Steve’s persistence wears him down, as does a sense of obligation to Harry.  Arthur trains the junior Mckenna, and the two soon find themselves in the crosshairs of those behind Harry’s murder.  As the truth begins to unravel, the relationship between Arthur and Steve becomes more complicated than either of them could ever have anticipated.

The Mechanic is a remake of the 1972 Charles Bronson vehicle of the same name.  Jason Statham is no stranger to this sort of material, but the initial approach taken by the film puts it in something of a different class than his usual Jason Statham fair.  Director Simon West is known for disposable high concept film-making.  He has no distinct visual style, or any of the other hallmarks that denote a “visionary.”  He isn’t necessarily a hack, just not the most distinct of filmmakers.  Those attributes serve The Mechanic well, at least at first.  The opening act feels clean and uninhibited.  The approach is technically sound, but not overly indulgent.  In that sense it reflects the attitude of the protagonist.  Arthur knows his job well, but goes about it without any emotion or enthusiasm. 

Alas, as Arthur soon teaches his young protégé, appearances can be deceiving.  The Mechanic starts off as a more muted and possibly more thoughtful Jason Statham film, which is something of a pleasant surprise.  However, once it gets to the business of Steve actually accompanying his mentor on missions, it’s as if Simon West and the screenwriters suddenly realized that they were making a Jason Statham movie.  The situations and set pieces become more improbable, and the film begins to betray its own internal logic.  In the process, it starts to neglect some of the deeper themes raised in the first half.  The action adheres to the approach that has been established for the genre in the post Michael Bay era.  The “kill shots” are the only things meant for the audience to linger over.  To Simon West’s credit, he manages to keep things just this side of comprehensible.  The action gets the job done in an efficient if somewhat colorless fashion.

Arthur is merely a variation on the kind of character that has become Statham’s stock in trade.  The only thing that has changed is the context, but only slightly.  Statham is barely allowed to emote at all.  Foster does what he can with Steve, but he is hampered by a screenplay that is content to hint at something deeper without ever capitalizing on it.  The same can be said for the relationship between Arthur and Steve.  It is rife with opportunities to explore any number of themes.  It hints at a deeper exploration initially, only to completely back away once the real action starts.  The results are frustratingly.

The Mechanic lives up to its name in many regards.  It’s cold and workmanlike, focusing on the job at hand and the most efficient way to get it done.  Unfortunately, Simon West can’t seem to decide on what kind of job he wants to do, and never finds anything resembling a satisfying compromise.  The Mechanic starts out as a rather subdued and thoughtful action film but disappointingly detours into typical Statham territory.  It doesn’t have the heart to go full bore in either direction,  or seek out stable middle ground.  It ends up being a pastiche of serious and cartoonish elements that work in and of themselves, but could have been refined into something more wholly satisfying.  That is a shame, as The Mechanic is a film that deserves to be more than what it ultimately is.    

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