Saturday, January 29, 2011
Although most people will probably not remember the original, "The Mechanic" (opened January 28 throughout San Diego) is a remake of a 70s Charles Bronson film.
First of all let me just say that Charles Bronson is THE MAN. He epitomized action cool for a generation of filmgoers in the 70s and 80s. The 1972 "The Mechanic" was a nifty little genre film with Charles Bronson as an aging and dying hit man who meets a kid (Jan-Michael Vincent) who wants to be a professional killer. The remake stars Jason Statham as Steve Bishop, a youngish paid killer who takes the son (Ben Foster) of the man he just killed under his wing. Once again – and no surprise here – Hollywood has remade a film for no apparent reason. The remake tweaks the original story but only in ways to make it less interesting and more predictably formulaic. The only reason for the remake is to find a vehicle for action star Jason Statham, and a remake takes less creative energy than coming up with an original idea.
The production values in the remake are much higher than in the original. So Bishop's pad is very slick and so are the tools of his trade. More things blow up and there are more car chases. But the story, as it now plays out, makes little sense. Bishop kills a man (Donald Sutherland) who happens to be a close friend and he apparently feels such guilt over it that he takes the man's son, Steve McKenna (Ben Foster) under his wing and inexplicably trains him to be a hit man, even though McKenna seems bent on avenging his father's death.
The cool thing about Bronson's Bishop was that even though he knew and even liked his victim, he never let emotions get in his way of executing the hit. And the reason he took his target's son under his wing is that he saw that cold-bloodedness in him as well. Jan-Michael Vincent's character had no feelings for his father and was indifferent to the murder. The relationship between mentor and student was interesting because it became a competitive game. Plus the fact that Bronson knew he was dying made it understandable that he would give away trade secrets and train someone who could only be a competitor.
The original film also had a 70s sensibility in terms of social and political context. Bronson's character displays the kind of disillusionment of the era by saying why not kill for money that's what governments do. He also alludes to the celebrity status Americans bestow on those who break the rules and become outlaws. The film also gave us a chilling glimpse into what it really takes to be a killer. There's a brilliant scene in which Vincent's girlfriend invites the two men to watch her commit suicide. She explains that she will cut her wrists and bleed out unless one of them stops her or takes her to the emergency. She slices her wrists open, and Bronson and Vincent sip wine and chitchat as she bleeds. Bronson calculates that it will take about an hour for someone of her weight and size to die but Vincent's character refuses to do anything. It's an amazing scene and nothing of that force or originality can be found in the simple-minded remake. Then another short scene with Jill Ireland as Bishop's girlfriend reveals the killer's character in ways that nothing in the remake can even imagine. And -- like many 70s films -- it also had the guts to see its story through to the logical bleak end.
The remake of "The Mechanic" has no guts at all. It wants to make a happy, shiny, feel-good hit man movie while pretending to be all badass. But the film is simply a star vehicle for Statham. So he's not an aging hit man but an "elite" one. And he always has to be perfect. Plus there has to be an opening at the end of the film for a sequel just in case the film catches on with audiences. This isn't art, it's a commercial product.
But the changes Richard Wenk and Lewis John Carlino (the now 79-year-old writer of the original film) make are all bad. First of all the filmmakers now want to create a moral universe for the characters. So Statham's Bishop has to be a killer with a heart and a sense of political correctness. The funny thing is that the trailer I included above was made at least five years after the original "The Mechanic" came out and it tries to spin the story in the same lame that the remake does -- as the story of a hit man cleaning up the world of unsavory types. Seems the studios are always trying to make things more pleasant for us. The difference is that the moralizing for the original film was ONLY in the trailer and NOT in the film. In the remake, we are clearly told that Bishop's victims are bad people – criminals, drug dealers, whatever, they deserve to die. But if that's the case than why does he kill his friend so easily? The answer the film wants us to accept is that it's okay because the friend is a cripple and gives his permission. Lame.
The killer with a heart/conscience also means that when push comes to shove, this Bishop doesn't want to hurt innocent people. Again that makes no sense for a hired killer. A hit man may want to just kill his target but he will kill anyone who gets in his way if he has to. But not Statham's Bishop. The film wants us to believe he's a good guy that we can sympathize with.
I grew up in the 70s and I have to admit that I didn't fully appreciate the gritty sensibility so many of those films displayed. They could give us characters that were unsympathetic and still make us care enough about them to be invested in the story. Bronson's Bishop was compellingly watchable. Bronson, though limited in range, was great at these kind of lean, mean men of action. Statham, who can be fun, is far too concerned with his star image and remaining likable to create a truly interesting character. The one trait that the two characters did keep is a love for classical music. Bronson's Bishop listens to it on cassette tapes while Statham's Bishop listens on records. That's the only nice homage to the original film.
I had seen the original "The Mechanic" as a kid but I watched it again streaming live on Netflix on my iPhone as I waited for the press screening of the remake to start. That made me marvel at where technology has taken us but angered me because filmmaking hasn't advance with comparable leaps and bounds.
"The Mechanic" (rated R for strong brutal violence throughout, language, some sexual content and nudity) is a ho-hum but slickly executed remake. I urge you to go see the original and marvel at Bronson's cool minimalism instead.
Companion viewing: "The Mechanic" (1972), "Rider on the Rain," "Le Femme Nikita" "The Matador"