By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

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Say what you will about Jason Statham — “The Stath” — but he has certainly become a brand name.

You know what you’re getting in a Statham flick (The Transporter, Death Race, Crank, The Bank Job, The Expendables): a hard-edged action thriller featuring a tough-as-nails actor who can handle all the physical demands and, as a bonus, knows how to stay within his admittedly limited range and give his audience what they crave without embarrassing himself.

That’s not going to snare prestigious awards any time soon, but it’s still not as easy as it sounds — we’ve had more than our share of action heroes who couldn’t do it.

Still, we yearn for each character study about a hitman to take us farther below the surface than its predecessors, and they rarely do.  That goes for this initially promising but ultimately disappointing thriller as well.

The Mechanic, Statham’s latest excursion into action thriller territory, is a retooling of a 1972 Charles Bronson vehicle (which tells you whom Statham see himself as a successor to), and stars Statham as one Arthur Bishop, the titular assassin, a disciplined and cold-blooded contract killer who lives anonymously near New Orleans and prides himself on his clean and undetectable elimination of targets and the strict code he follows.

When a mentor and friend named Harry McKenna, played by Donald Sutherland, is murdered, the usually detached Bishop is enraged and assigns himself the mission of killing those responsible for his friend’s death.

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Ben Foster, so impressive as he came of age acting-wise in 3:10 to Yuma and The Messenger, plays Steve McKenna, Harry’s vengeful son.  He approaches Bishop with the same goal.

So, breaking his rule of always working alone, the methodical Bishop, sporting his permanent frown, takes Steve on as an apprentice and — becoming a mentor to the son of his own mentor — teaches him the ropes.

Tony Goldwyn also turns up, heading the supporting cast as the corporate honcho who employs Bishop.

The director, Simon West (Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, The General’s Daughter, When a Stranger Calls), moves things along at a brisk pace and tries to breathe a bit of fresh air into the increasingly stale hitman-thriller genre.  But his attempt to speak to any audience not already enamored of the Statham mystique makes a brief appearance and then gets tucked away.

The screenplay by Richard Wenk and Lewis John Carlino, based on Carlino’s story, offers plenty of brutal action as a component in a narrative that seems to promise a deeper exploration of the psychology of the assassin than is the norm.  However, the script doesn’t end up fulfilling that promise, instead indulging in the final reels in ugly sadism, contrived implausibility, and comic-book excess in the form of over-the-top incendiary explosions.

Statham trots out his usual taciturn, snarling persona, but suggests in the film’s quieter moments that he might be capable of a bit more depth, if only a screenplay would allow him the chance.

It’s the relationship between the detached Bishop and the volatile McKenna, delivered by Statham and Foster, that could have helped The Mechanic to transcends its genre.  But “back to the basics” is the unfortunate philosophy demonstrated in Act III.

So we’ll take on 2 stars out of 4 for The Mechanic. This latest visit with a hitman might be a hit, man, but it could have been a lot less mechanical.

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