Jason Statham movies are often dismissed as brain-dead action trash. The delirious Crank and Transporter films would never be mistaken for one of the Bourne pictures, and the dreadful/hilarious Death Race couldn't even be mistaken for Crank. Still, Statham, who started out as an athlete (a member of the British national diving team), is a natural action star. His range as an actor is limited (soulful broods between the trademark butt-kickings), but his sweet stubbly charisma holds the screen. And with The Mechanic, he's found a vehicle nicely suited to his narrow but nevertheless real talents.
The movie is a remake of a 1972 demi-classic that starred Charles Bronson. Screenwriter Richard Wenk has done a respectful take on Lewis John Carlino's original script (although he's changed the ending), and so once again we're swept up in the never-a-dull-moment life of Arthur Bishop (Statham in the Bronson role), a top hitman in the employ of a shadowy international assassination bureau. Arthur isn't your average thug. He's averse to just blowing people away, and instead carefully researches his targets and arranges their deaths to look like accidents. Between assignments, he repairs to his luxurious home on an island in a Louisiana bayou, where he chills to the sounds of Schubert piano trios and tinkers with a classic cherry-red sports car (a possession of dubious utility on a mossy little island, but whatever).
After Arthur's mentor in the death business, Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland), is murdered, Arthur finds himself saddled with Harry's alienated son, Steve (Ben Foster). Heretofore an aimless youth, Steve sees in Arthur's lively trade a lifestyle he'd like to have himself. Soon Arthur is tutoring him in the dark arts of termination, and before long they're performing hits together. When they realize that somebody is trying to terminate them, things get extra-lively.
English director Simon West (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) stages action sequences with impeccable clarity. There's a long, impressively complex chase-and-escape down the side of a building that never collapses into confusion, and a room-wrecking smackdown with a 300-pound gay killer that might have left Jason Bourne himself a little winded. There are also some clever audience fake-outs (one involving a young girl's hand and a garbage disposal) and some cute '60s touches—a furious battle in a cramped bus salutes the famous train-fight scene in From Russia with Love, and the heavily reverb'd electric-guitar noodlings in Mark Isham's score are pure Morricone. A couple of women pass through the debris, but this boys-only world is not their natural habitat, however hard they try to adapt. (Coming on to the battered and bloody Steve after one fracas, a sultry bargirl purrs, "I wish someone would hurt me like that.")
Teaming Statham with a resourceful actor like Foster was a shrewd ploy. Foster's energetic characterization and his probing wit provide a focus for Statham's pensive stillness, and afford it some resonance. Not that the older star is going soft or anything—the script sees to that. At one point, Arthur leaves a helpful note for another character. It says, "If you're reading this, you're dead."
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Anthony Hopkins movies are rarely dismissed as brain-dead trash. But among the many fine films he's made there has been a smattering of paycheck junk, like Freejack and Beowulf (in which he unwisely bared his loins) and the horrid (if you ask me) Hannibal, which turned his great Dr. Lecter into a depraved cartoon. What's interesting about even these misfires, however, is the actor's unflagging commitment: No matter how impoverished the script, or how clamorous the inanities unfolding all around him, Hopkins always gives a complete performance—he just can't stop being a terrific actor.
Such is the case with his latest, a minor exorcism flick called The Rite. The movie is not entirely without interest: Unusually, it makes an earnest case for religious faith over rote atheism; and it has a rich, dark look. (The picture was shot in both Italy and Hungary, but a Magyar gloom prevails.) Hopkins plays Father Lucas Trevant, a Catholic exorcist, based in Rome, who takes under his wing an American seminarian named Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue), who's having a crisis of faith and second thoughts about entering the priesthood. Lucas sets out to demonstrate to Michael that the Devil—and therefore God—does exist. The key exhibit is a pregnant girl who has been possessed by a demon, turning her into Linda Blair, complete with roll-up eyes and crackling neck twists (although she vomits nails, too, which is something new). Also on hand are a red-eyed donkey demon, a devilish frog, and a herd of cockroaches that are clearly up to no good. You get the picture.
None of this nonsense has the pulp charge that would make it fun. But Hopkins is once again unstoppable, enlivening the slumpiest scenes with his fleeting tics and twitches, and that oddly unsavory smile. Only he could have brought off one scene, in which Lucas is interrupted while dealing with a flailing demon-child by the ring of his cellphone. "I can't talk now," he whispers into it. "I'm in the middle of something."
While Hopkins transcends all of this, he still leaves us wondering: How does such a superb performer become involved in a project so unworthy of his talent? Maybe it's just the eternal actor's plight. As Lucas says at one point, "It's very difficult to predict how any of this stuff is going to work out."
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.