A film review by Craig J. Koban February 2, 2011

THE MECHANIC j
j
½ 

2011, R, 105 mins.

 

Arthur Bishop: Jason Statham / Steve McKenna: Ben Foster / Dean: Tony Goldwyn / Harry: Donald Sutherland / Burke: Jeff Chase

Directed by Simon West / Written by Richard Wenk, based on the screenplay by Lewis John Carlino

THE MECHANIC – remade from the 1972 Charles Bronson film of the same name, unseen by me – is about a hitman that lives by his own obsessive rules, code of conduct, and need for anonymity that never really has anything tangibly new to say about the nature of professional contract killers that we have not all seen before in countless past action-thrillers.  The film contains the obligatory calm, cool, introverted, and lethally dangerous hitman that is the best at what he does at his job, but he slowly begins to have second thoughts about his employers and their choice of targets.   As a result, he decides to take matters into his own hands and plots a retaliatory mission so that he can finally break free from his bosses once and for all. 

Does any of this sound remotely familiar?  It certainly did for me, and this newly retooled MECHANIC is definitely not dull to watch, nor is it an action thriller that’s not proficiently made, but its real problem is that it never really engaged me in its characters or their dilemmas.  The film does throw in an added dimension to the hitman’s life in the form of a very unlikely choice of protégée that he finds himself training to be his sidekick, but the mentor/trainee arc to the film is also quite feebly developed.    

Beyond the character dynamics and relationships, there is no real figure that commands – nor deserves – our rooting interest.  These men are impenetrable as likeable protagonists: the main character indiscriminately kills people without remorse (at one point, a cripple in a wheelchair) and is so withdrawn and sullen that you have to remind yourself that this is the “hero”.  The manner that THE MECHANIC goes out of its way – especially near the final act – to emphasize that this man is indeed the hero is kind of manipulatively contrived and false.  Compared to, say, THE AMERICAN, which also featured a dexterous, resilient, and merciless killer-for-hire, THE MECHANIC plays itself safely as commercialized and sensationalist pap.   

Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham) is an assassin that works for the mysterious “Company” that often requires high profile targets to be taken out quietly while making it appear like accidents (one of the central weaknesses of the film is that it’s hazy as to what the “Company” really is and what they represent).  Bishop is not a simplistic killer that uses typical means to inflict death; rather, he engages in complex and fiendishly organized scenarios that manage to rid the world of his targets while never once pinpointing any suspicion on him as the culprit.  He is meticulous in his research and level of obsessive preparation and after he completes one significant mission (in the film’s fairly rousing opening sequence) he is given a new one by a top ranking Company official (played well by Tony Goldwyn) that is as personal as it gets: he wants Bishop to murder his own mentor, Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland, uniformly decent in a small, throwaway cameo role) that apparently has been engaging in some dicey Company deals outside of work. 

One of the film’s great and ingenious scenes involves Bishop’s convoluted plan (which I will not reveal) to lure Harry out of his office and into an area that he feels is safe and secure…. which is an ideal place for Bishop to quietly murder his former teacher.  Even though he has a moral conflict with the task at hand, Bishop nonetheless completes it with an icy resolve…and some melancholic regrets and feelings of guilt.  His guilt gets to him so much that he decides to atone for his sin by taking in Harry’s troubled, black sheep son, Steve (Ben Foster) and decides to train him as his father did him.  Of course, Steve has no idea that Bishop was his father’s killer, but he is stern with his desire to find his dad’s murderer and exact some revenge, which makes Bishop’s mentor relationship with him that much more intricate and potentially hazardous.  Things get ever more arduous for the pair when the Company begins to have issues with Bishop’s non-sanctioned training of Steve, not to mention that Steve’s first mission nearly ends in disaster.   

I liked the pairing of Statham and Foster in the film.  Statham in particular has become one of the most dependably cool, elegantly rugged, and understatedly suave action stars of his generation.  There is not much in the way of a character with much depth or back-story for him to play in Bishop, but the actor brings his low-key charisma, his piercing glare, and his fist clenched tenacity that makes him so enjoyable to watch in these types of films.  Foster is a young actor that has had a field day playing intense loose cannon roles with a fidgety anxiety and a pent up hostility and edge that can boil over at any moment, which makes him very reliably cast as Steve.  He evokes an irritated impetuousness that makes for an effective foil to the by-the-books and rigidly prepared Bishop who demands perfection in implementing all of his missions. 

THE MECHANIC was directed by Simon West, a British filmmaker that many may remember helming 1997’s CON AIR, a fairly brainless, but undeniably effective and viscerally exciting action picture.   West certainly is a capable director when it comes to making films with wanton destruction and unapologetic mayhem, and THE MECHANIC certainly coasts on its allure of being a well oiled, testosterone-laced action bonanza that’s not afraid to pile up the bodies and show the blood and gore really fly.  

Yet, I guess that one problem I had with the film was how West – like far too many modern action directors – forgets to impart a sense of clarity in some of the action scenes themselves.  When the film is not being aggressively hectic and frenetic with the camera work, it often is an editorial nightmare when it comes to delineating the basic geography of scenes.  Sometimes, it’s thorny to distinguish the spatial relationships between characters, the vehicles they're driving, and their proximity because West assaults us with action choreography that is more ocular unfriendly than inviting and immersive.  How many bloody times am I going to have to ask this question: when will directors keep the damn camera still and not edit with seizure-inducing cutting?  There are other better ways to suggest the chaos and intensity of moments in a film without shaking the camera incessantly and editing shots so rapidly that you feel like you’re watching subliminal imagery. 

Also, there are other issues with THE MECHANIC, like some gapping logical plot holes that are kind of hard not to notice.  Like, for instance, how Bishop takes a societal fringe figure like Steve and manages to turn him into an exemplary and efficient killer machine virtually overnight (or, in the film’s case, during about five or six minutes of screen time).  Also, the villains of the film – The Company – are so sketchily developed and have motives that are never really understood that I found myself asking more questions about them than I would have if they were a part of a finer crafted screenplay.  They are narrowly defined merely by the constraints of the screenplay: they are the bad guys, and that’s about it.  There is also a very minor subplot detail about how Bishop likes listening to vinyl and really likes working on restoring his classic car and you know – you just know ­– that his beloved and shiny crimson auto will not make it out of this film completely intact.   

One area that the film really squanders on is tension and thrills: THE MECHANIC could have truly been more compelling if it tantalized viewers more with the central teacher/student relationship contained within.  Instead of engaging in a swift and tricky narrative that built suspense and intrigue about when and how Steve would discover the truth about Bishop’s relationship with his dad, THE MECHANIC routinely seems to go through the motions and only deals with it during its final minutes that never fully resolves it in any meaningful or satisfying way.  Plus, as mentioned previously, the film does not seem to know which character is the one to root on as the empathetic hero and the way it sort of makes the choice for us by the time the end credits roll by is the most artificial and mechanical element of THE MECHANIC.  The resulting film is one that’s well acted and semi-enjoyable as an unpretentious B-grade exploitation picture with enough hectic and gratuitous action to keep people interested for 90 minutes, but there is most assuredly a more uniquely compelling film to made of its spare parts than what’s on display here.

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