The Mechanic (2011)

By Adam Lippe

Oh straight-faced stupidity, how I adore thee! While you’ve recently taken a hit with the advent of ironic violence and such confused projects as The Green Hornet which can’t decide if it means business or is only kidding (how about a 9 minute fight between our heroes that’s preoccupied primarily with property destruction), I sense that you will eventually have a real and profound comeback. Regardless, you will always have a place in my heart.

Now while some may point to your heyday as some of the lower-wattage films of Arnold Schwarzenegger (Commando, Eraser, Raw Deal) or the entire output of writer Shane Black (The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Last Boy Scout, Lethal Weapon), the self-awareness of these projects digs at their pure enthusiastic pleasure.

Your real king is director Michael Winner, who poured his patented gentlemanly sleaze into projects as varied and unpleasant as Death Wish II, The Wicked Lady, The Sentinel, etc. While Winner was primarily known for the first Death Wish, and for his six films with star Charles Bronson, his true gift to cinema and you, straight-faced stupidity, was Death Wish 3. Aside from its politically correct multi-racial gangs, its cast of elder statesman more suited to an episode of The Love Boat (Martin Balsam, Ed Lauter), its poorly faked “Bronx projects” sets, Death Wish 3 should be lauded for its willingness to engage in the ridiculous without calling attention to it. Yes, Charles Bronson, aged 64 at the time, firing a missile at a large group of rapists and punks is absurd, but nothing is more idiotic than a scene with the Oscar winning actor Martin Balsam attempting to mow down a group of malcontents with an automatic machine gun, complete with an enormous belt. The punks spot the gun and begin running away as we hear off-screen, “he’s got a gun!” When the gun jams just a moment later, the off-screen cry we hear is “it’s not working!” and everyone comes running back to attack Balsam.

There is nothing even remotely that entertaining in Michael Winner’s 1972 film The Mechanic, which has an ambitious opening (no dialogue for the first fifteen minutes) but then settles into a standard “experienced hit man training his younger, impatient replacement” story that’s been done a hundred times before and since (the best recent examples would be Leon and Coldblooded). The Mechanic is a pretty mild film, especially for Winner, not memorable for anything stars Bronson and Jan-Michael Vincent provide (as pro and rookie hitmen, respectively); except for an ending that takes chances, at least for the genre.

That’s why it was a wonder that Simon West’s The Mechanic was being made at all. It’s understandable that Jason Statham was hired to take over the Bronson part, since Statham has consistently brought a steely intensity to flagrant idiocy, especially the high water marks of Crank and Transporter 2. But since the original The Mechanic wasn’t outrageous or distinctive, and it’s almost 40 years old, it’s not likely that the intended audience would come see it based on name recognition.

Could we have another situation like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, where a producer had the rights to a title and was going to slap it onto a vaguely similar film, just to make the deal? It’s possible, because like BL:POCNO, The Mechanic was produced by Millennium Films and was shot in Louisiana, suggesting that Avi Lerner may have made a deal with an actor where The Mechanic was the “star in this project and I’ll put you in that movie.” Could the other film have been The Expendables, co-starring and Statham and produced by Lerner?

It might explain the haphazard way that The Mechanic has been put together, with villains who aren’t nasty or smug enough (Tony Goldwyn, who usually knows how to ramp up the smarm) and shoddy story construction with gads of exposition doled in sloppy ways, such as Statham reading a useful newspaper story that would have been impossible to write unless the reporter had been part of the terrorist group that was eliminated. It’s also terminally underlit and has an ungainly color scheme that mostly focuses on eye-gouging oranges and browns.

The movie is, however*, extraordinarily entertaining in fits and starts. It’s viciously violent with action sequences that send postcards of regards to over-the-top, arriving squarely in chutzpah nonsense land. There’s a car + bus chase, a hotel gunfight, and a one-on-one fight between Ben Foster** (as the hit man in training) and a much, much larger foe, that are so blood-splattered and nasty, without winking***, that either applause or laughter are the only appropriate responses.

But is The Mechanic too mean to be enjoyed? No, because it’s the only hitman movie I’ve ever seen that has a “taking your puppy to a coffee shop” montage. And its gay themes, while not all that progressive, but for an action movie of this type are certainly unique, especially the tension created by a character pondering over whether or not he should roofie his potential beau’s drink. And though the movie does cop out at the end, following the original beat for beat, until someone got chicken and ordered an obvious re-shoot, there’s something to be said for a movie that fulfills your expectations by properly rising to the level of straight-faced stupidity.

* The opening James Bondian action scene is passable, but ends in an ill-advised manner, with Statham doggy paddling behind a slowly moving boat. Doggy paddling ≠ tough guy.

** Foster does his requisite method brooding, including the brooding enjoyment of a cigarette, and, accompanied by an intense gaze, the brooding appreciation of ones self in the mirror.

*** There’s a very similar fight scene in 2004’s version of The Punisher between Thomas Jane and a giant Russian that is totally undermined by irony, and deflates the movie completely from then on.

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Featured Quote (written by me)

On Cold Fish:

Though the 16 year old me described the 1994 weepie Angie, starring Geena Davis as a Brooklyn mother raising her new baby alone, as “maudlin and melodramatic,” Roger Ebert, during his TV review, referring to the multitude of soap-operaish problems piling up on the titular character, suggested that it was only in Hollywood where Angie would get a happy ending. “If they made this movie in France, Angie would have shot herself.”

Well Cold Fish was made in Japan, where Angie would have shot herself and that would have been the happy ending.