Movies

The Mechanic and The Rite

Jason Statham steps up, Anthony Hopkins rises above.

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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."

    *    *    *    *    

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.

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    1. By the director of Con Air. How much will it suck? I have a guess, and it involves Con Air.

      1. You have to see Nicholas cage films for the gems that they really are. My brother and I have a running comment that we say during his movies – usually at a point where NC is over the top – “that isn’t acting…that is the real NC right now”

  1. …the dreadful/hilarious Death Race…

    Meh – Transporter 2 was worse. Of course, I can’t really think of a film that you can’t say that about.

    1. Was Death Race the one with the baby and Paul Giamatti? I’d say “dreadful/hilarious” was a pretty good characterization if so.

      1. I think you’re thinking of Shoot ‘Em Up, which was glorious in its own ridiculousness.

        1. Ahh yes, that’s the one, thanks. I guess I haven’t seen Death Race.

  2. I am lovin’ the movie reviews, Reason!

    An Anthony Hopkins guilty pleasure movie for my wife and me is “The Edge” – AH as an author in the woods with Alec Baldwin, being chased by a man-eating bear. FUCK YEAH! Nothin’ but a paycheck, but he’s STILL great. Of course.

    And “Transporter”/Statham was very good (“highly actional” as my son says) – II and III, not so much.

    1. He was pretty entertaining in the Titus Andronicus flick a decade back – absolutely gruesome movie, so pretty faithful to the source material.

    2. I agree, the Edge was great. “I will kill the bear!!”

      1. The edge is my all time favorite movie. The story is a great metaphor for life – every day you are in the woods and chased by a bear – maybe not a real bear but a problem that you must face – you can lay down and die or kill it, your choice.
        So many gems in that movie – people die of shame when lost- is also true of life. Every day you can stand in the mire and boohoo how and why you are where you are or you can do the one thing to save yourself – use your mind and think of a way out.
        There are more – and the scenery, Baldwin, and the action is superb.
        Awesome movie!

        1. Did they credit Ronald Reagan?

      2. “I like my coffee like I like my women: bitter and murky.”

        1. Just because you’re lost, doesn’t mean your compass is broken.

          Then there is the scene where Baldwin has a meltdown –
          Oh I get it what sets you off are Jews and taxes
          Fire from ice, bob

          1. The best scene though is after the near end of the movie deadfall and how the Charles character deals with it – everyone in the theater expected revenge – but the charles character’s reaction shows his true good nature and never “falls” to the ease of revenge

            I was 24 when I saw that movie and honestly that scene changed the way I viewed revenge and how a good person conducts himself.

            As hopkins’ Charles pondered – can a man change – can anyone change – so many things in that movie really changed my life

    3. Yeah The Edge is good stuff. I found it while browsing around the Netflix streaming catalog a year or so ago, not expecting much. I was pleasantly surprised.

  3. Boy, I hope there’s a piece about Lady GaGa tomorrow!

    1. Yes, let’s whine about culture articles in reason! That makes sense!

  4. Reason, you need a new method of shrinking video stills. The stills for the ‘video nav bar’ look awful.

  5. Seriously dudes, when you review the best, and most politically interesting, film of 2010 – Carlos.

  6. Favorite AH performance: The Worlds Fastest Indian

    Second favorite and by far creepiest AH role of all time: Magic. Imagine the unbearable creep of AH in a Dead Ringers-era Cronenberg film. [shivvers]

    Jason Statham, the on-screen equivalent of popcorn.

    1. Good call on World’s Fastest Indian – he was very subtle in that.

    2. Jason Statham is delicious and I want to lick his juices off my fingers?

      Well yes, that’s a great metaphor.

  7. Statham is certainly a natural…sweet, stubbly, charismatic, and he is talented, I must agree.

  8. Why is this review on a reason magazine?

    Perhaps you should review Truth TV:
    http://www.Truthmedia.8k.com/TruthTV.html

    1. Yeah, it’s not like Reason is about free markets AND free minds, or anything. Oh, wait, it is.

  9. Also on hand are a red-eyed donkey demon, a devilish frog, and a herd of cockroaches that are clearly up to no good.

    Do they have the dog with the shifty eyes? You know he’s evil because he has shifty eyes.

  10. Unusually, it makes an earnest case for religious faith over rote atheism

    Weak. A stupid exorcism story is bad enough, I don’t need to be preached to at the same time.

  11. The original Mechanic with Bronson and Jan-Michael Vincent is a great movie. In the right hands, Mr. Majestyk would be another good remake.

  12. So many bills to pay, so few good movies to star in.
    Anthony Hopkins is the English Robert de Niro.

    Well, except that Robert de Niro doesn’t actually act all that well anymore.

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