There’s a certain suspension of disbelief required for all cinema, an acceptance that what we’re seeing on screen is “reality” rather than a bunch of actors, lighting specialists, sound techs, set builders, cinematographers and a director all collaborating to tell a compelling story. With some genres of film, there’s a second level of belief required, one where the viewer has to also accept the basic premise of the film.
That’s where The Mechanic fails miserably, presenting Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham) as a crack assassin who can kill his targets without leaving a trace, or even – as we learn later – to implicate third parties in the crime. Impressive. Except as we watch Bishop blunder his way through target after target, he’s clearly amateurish, leaving fingerprints and clues at every crime scene, never having a backup plan if something goes wrong and relying on luck to escape afterwards.
There’s an predictable father/son relationship between Bishop and his “handler” Harry (Donald Sutherland) which is reinforced by Harry complaining to Bishop about his ne’er-do-well son Steve (Ben Foster). In one particularly odd scene, Bishop offers parenting advice to Harry, even though he prides himself on being disconnected from his own emotions. Through an obvious plot machination, Bishop ends up an unwilling mentor to Steve, a dangerous thug with no sense of elegance or finesse.
Ultimately, the glue that makes The Mechanic stick together is action film cliches. From the opening scene where we see a drug lord getting off his private jet in Columbia, it’s hoary action cliches that fuel the story. Problem is, it’s ultimately boring and even Statham’s usually entertaining fight sequences are muted and incomprehensibly filmed, leaving us to pay too much attention to the weak plot. This just isn’t a good film.
What makes it all worse is that The Mechanic is a remake of a tough 70’s action film starring everyman Charles Bronson. Bronson brought a vulnerability, a “tough guy on the corner” energy to his roles that made a lot of his films shine, even with their predictable stories. The earlier version of The Mechanic rolled out a different cliche, however: the assassin who wants to retire, but has to train his replacement (Jan-Michael Vincent in the original). A more complicated father/son dynamic and a grittier feel make it a superior film to the Statham remake.
One of the weaknesses in the new story was Steve’s unpredictable, angry personality. A dangerous and headstrong thug, it’s never established why Bishop is willing to give up his privacy and safety to become a mentor. Guilt over being tricked into an earlier assassination? Maybe, but that would require that Bishop actually have normal human emotions, and regret is a difficult emotion for an assassin. In one memorable and oddly homoerotic scene, Steve is given the task of killing hulking killer Burke (Jeff Chase) with an undetectable poison. Instead, he ends up fighting Burke mano-a-mano and making a complete mess of the assassination. Bishop just shrugs it off and the film proceeds, something that made no sense given the fastidious nature of Bishop’s character.
Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham) and Steve (Ben Foster) from The Mechanic
psst: nice product placement, Apple!
Bishop works for a private agency that contracts out its assassinations. Who are they? How did they find Bishop and how does he know some of his fellow assassins if they’re such a secret organization? There could have been an engaging subplot focused on the agency, but the film is squarely focused on Bishop himself, so while at the beginning we see him search a rural online newspaper for an online classified advert to get a new assignment, every subsequent communication from the firm is via cellphone or courier.
There’s also the puzzle of why Statham was cast. The producers said that they brought Statham on board because of his “charismatic qualities”, but his role in The Mechanic is so extraordinarily uncharismatic that they could have cast anyone who knew how to throw a punch and shoot a rifle. I’ve really enjoyed some of Statham’s earlier films, notably The Transporter, but if he’s going to be cast because of his charm and precision fighting style, why not make sure they’re integral to his role?
I really like action films and was quite disappointed with The Mechanic. It’s a film that could have been exciting and engaging, but instead ended up a lifeless unengaging mess fueled by film cliches and completely incomprehensible to people who pay attention to plots and storylines. And what’s with the complete lack of women in the film too?
If you want to see an interesting film about a retired assassin, there are a bunch of choices, including The Killer, Reds and Shooter. If you want to explore the story of retired assassin and mentor, try the original 1972 The Mechanic. As for the remake? There are better ways to spend your time.