Friday, January 28, 2011

Back to the Junkyard

by James Hansen

Simon West’s The Mechanic, a new version of the 1972 Charles Bronson film by the same name, starts as an existential character study, morphs half way through into a hitman apprenticeship story with no real purpose, and ends as a bizarrely off-putting, conspiracy-laden, action-espionage thriller. Without any connective tissue between these shifts, not to mention an unfortunate atonality and lack of conviction throughout, The Mechanic fails to succeed in any of its three mutated forms and piles up into a garbage heap.

Arthur Bishop (the always serviceable Jason Statham) is a “mechanic” – a hitman – for an international organization. He is successful and trusted because he follows orders and cleanly carries out his missions. The first 40-minutes or so of The Mechanic follow Arthur as he ponders his life of violence. A sweeping shot of Statham sitting in the dark here, a reverse version of the same shot there – existential crisis! After he is assigned a hit on his longtime friend, Arthur (for some reason) befriends Steve (Ben Foster), the son of the man he just killed. Steve, unaware it is Arthur who killed his father, lashes out after his father’s death at random car jackers. Finally, Arthur takes him under his wing and trains him to become a mechanic.

That getting through this basic premise takes nearly half of the 90-minute running time is the first (all too long) indication of adaptation trouble for Mr. West and screenwriters Lewis John Carlino and Richard Wenk; they have tried their hand at mimicking the atmospheric, silent opening of Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (a hold over homage from the 1972 version, which apparently spends it first 16 minutes in silence as Bronson prepares his first job) – a difficult task, to say the least, and one that The Mechanic misses by a mile. Showing neither the restraint nor half the intellectual intensity of Melville’s classic, The Mechanic’s first half is both tedious and tepid.

In the second half, once Steve’s apprenticeship begins, The Mechanic becomes a different movie, but unfortunately still a bad one. Ignoring the potentially interesting relational dynamics between Arthur and Steve, The Mechanic turns into a hitman training video, except without any consequence. The sideshow of disparate missions (kill a Colombian, kill your backstabbing friend, kill a 6’7’ “mechanic” who loves chihuahuas and young boys, kill an obese preacher who think he is the Messiah, etc.) occurs without a semblance of context, randomly moving from one hit to the next without a framework for any kind of narrative urgency.

When Arthur sends Steve on his first solo job to hit the 6’7 “mechanic,” he warns Steve to keep it clean, do it in a bar, and don’t take on this guy. Of course, Steve doesn’t follow the directions, gets his ass kicked, and does the job as messily as possible, all to which Arthur merely chides, “I told you to keep it clean.” And, in the next scene, out of sight, out of mind. Here, The Mechanic reveals its pornographic action construction – rather than being strung together for sexual arousal, it gets off on action sequences functioning purely to fetishize violence and first-person shooter fantasies.

Needless to say, this makes the last-gasp injections of a double-conspiracy twist and a nonsensical coda (all on top of previously non-existent narratives) all the more hysterical. Statham is a strong action star, and Ben Foster’s feisty underling provides a good counterpoint to his stoic ferocity, but The Mechanic proves unwilling (or unable) to cohere enough on any level and properly utilize Statham’s badass persona (as was done in The Transporter series, Death Race, Crank 2 High Voltage, etc.) Rather, it sets a number of disassembled pieces beside each other and never figures out how to put them together.

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