THE MECHANIC: Brisk Product for the Modern Age (Review)

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas (@peteramartin)
THE MECHANIC: Brisk Product for the Modern Age (Review)
You might think that remaking a deadpan 70s original with an unabashed comic action sensibility from the 80s would be enough desecration for most people.

The Mechanic, which opens wide in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. tomorrow, goes a couple of steps further by layering on 90s-style psychological justification for the characters and a nebulous post-9/11 amoral morality. Surprise! It works (kinda, sorta). The end product -- and it is just that, after all, product engineered by and for a mass audience -- is briskly entertaining, an unapologetic, violent R-rated movie that skates by on the grizzled charm of Jason Statham and Ben Foster.

Statham plays the titular character, Arthur Bishop, an assassin for hire who receives his assignments from Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland), wheelchair-bound and complaining about his no-good son when we meet him. Harry might as well be called "Exposition Guy / Precipitating Factor": he's around to tell the audience about Bishop's peerless reputation and kick-start the plot. Harry, in turn, receives his marching orders from Dean (Tony Goldwyn), an anonymous Bad Man at "The Company," AKA Secret Government Conspiracy Killing Bureau.

After Harry's exit from the movie, we meet his son, Steve, embodied by Foster as an aimless, angry, violence-prone rebel without a shave. Steve doesn't like the world, much less his old man, but he seems kinda needy and Bishop is feeling kinda guilty, so he begins training Steve as an assassin.

Cut to training montage, filled with bullets popping into the air from automatic weapons and disintegrating vegetation.

As Bishop takes pains to explain to Steve, the whole trick of being a "mechanic," rather than simply an assassin, is that sometimes it's better to masquerade a murder as an accidental death; it's better to make it look as though you were never around in the first place. That's how Bishop has built his reputation as the best in the business. Bishop takes Steve along on a mission, so he can see what's involved in actually killing a man, which turns into a bloody, bruising business.

Here's the thing: Bishop is supposed to be an incredibly prepared professional, proficient with his laptop and planning everything out to a meticulous degree, yet on that murder run with Steve, he bulls in to his target during the day, leaves a bloody mess, hikes the dude up with a cockamamie "accidental" death that not even the dumbest cop on Earth would believe, and doesn't even bother to wipe up fingerprints or clean up the evidence from the scene.

Wait, he's the best in the world?

The other assassinations don't go any better, each progressively more sloppy. And each one is justified by Bishop: "this guy's a drug dealer," "this guy raped a girl," etc., as though he were Dexter (ref. Showtime U.S. cable TV show), a serial killer who only kills the bad guys, with a degree of self-righteous morality.

The action scenes are staged by Simon West with the finesse you would expect from the director of Con Air and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which is to say, none at all. We don't know what's happening, even as bodies move clumsily through the frame, blood spurts out of said bodies courtesy of CGI, and glass shatters on a consistent basis.

It's the latter point that's most reminiscent of 80s action movies, where no window (or shiny surface) was left unbroken. That, and the breathless disregard for human life, epitomized at one point when Steve shoots someone and it feels like the punch line to a joke.

The 1972 original, written by Lewis John Carlino and directed by Michael Winner, set up Bishop, played by Charles Bronson, as an aging assassin, with Jan-Michael Vincent as the cocky young guy he takes under his wing. The action scenes were modest but precisely filmed; the characterizations provided understandable motivations without angst. It wasn't a deathless classic, but an efficient, well-crafted machine that got where it was going with a fair degree of style.

The remake borrows the basic plot outline and characters, but in its rush to modernize things it ignores what made the original purr. The refashioned model is built entirely around Statham and Foster; they're more like the Bash Brothers, wary buddies who are both lean and mean and kinda look alike, as opposed to the generational divide that existed in the original. They are charming as far as it goes, with Statham doing his patented humorless quiet guy routine, while Foster lightens up and supplies occasional wisecracks.

Sutherland does much more with his limited screen time than you might expect (unless you know his filmography); sadly, Goldwyn is thoroughly anonymous and never truly threatening. Mini Anden, filling the role played by Jill Ireland in the original, supplies a bit of eye candy.

The action scenes are all "bigger" than the original, with more thunder and lightning, without appreciably greater effect. West may not be able to stage action well, but he keeps the movie moving so quickly that you barely have enough time to finish rolling your eyes at one sequence before the next one takes its place.

That's the movie's greatest strength: it's over before you have time to register too many complaints. Unlike other recent Hollywood studio products, I wasn't shifting in my seat from boredom. The Mechanic isn't a good movie by any means, but falls into the category of trashy fun, suitable for bargain matinee viewing.

In reference to another movie, a friend of mine said, "It wasn't painful to sit through," and that sums up my reaction to The Mechanic.
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