Review: The Mechanic, 2011, dir. Simon West

Anyone who’s remotely acquainted with cinematic hitmen knows, or should know, that as a rule they’re often at best isolated and at worst emotionally destitute and cripplingly alone as they soldier along a path through life that’s solitary by nature. Unsurprising, maybe; hitmen, after all, deal in the art of killing for money, though rarely for the thrill of the kill or for reasons other than “business”. Most button men in film tend to be Leons or Jeff Costellos rather than Tok-Wah Loks or Harlen Maguires, and savvy audiences know it, too, if not from experience than from common sense. Simon West knows it, too, but he doesn’t have the common decency to let the narrative of his Jason Statham action vehicle, The Mechanic, convey that with any subtlety; there are few storytelling crimes worse than spelling out what audiences can infer on their own, save for spelling out what they already know going into the movie.

“Subtle” and “Jason Statham” don’t usually pair together in any film– by purchasing a ticket to one of the surly Brit’s movies, you tend to forfeit any chance at seeing a compelling story in which characters develop and flesh out and achieve some sort of resolution in favor of watching him mow down legions of foes and spit in the face of good taste while thrash metal squeals in the background. It’s a risk we all understand and accept, at least when the movie in question has Crank in the title somewhere, but a movie like The Mechanic doesn’t require finely tuned nuance in the deployment of narrative. It only need not insult the intelligence of its audiences.

Which the film manages to do within the first fifteen minutes or so, shamelessly and while remaining utterly oblivious to the slight. Arthur (Statham) doesn’t need to be told by his contact and mentor, Harry (Sutherland), that he’s lonely– the guy needs to take a boat downriver to get to his house and enjoys non-lethal human contact with only a prostitute and a dock worker. His situation speaks for itself, and we don’t need to be burdened with exposition on his circumstances either. But Harry, well-intentioned in all fairness, makes that very blunder without thinking twice about it and without apology, sending my brain into full revolt before delivering the goods I expected from the movie in the first place.

It’s a stumble The Mechanic doesn’t really recover from. Professional killers of film often find their ordered and repetitious lives irrevocably changed by one unexpected plot element or another; in the case of Arthur, he’s given the job of killing Harry, which he reluctantly does in one of the movie’s better staged sequences. The job comes with an unexpected side affect in the arrival of Steve (Foster), Harry’s estranged disappointment of a son who comes around looking for payback on anyone available, unaware of Arthur’s role in his dad’s killing.

When Steve gets introduced, the film muddles. Steve’s arc focuses on his need to avenge a father who considered him a disappointment, while Arthur’s hints at a desire to leave his old life behind and discover a new one. More than hints, in fact; that aforementioned dock worker suggests quite blatantly that Arthur should buy a yacht and just sail away. It’s another common hitman trope, but one that breeds disharmony rather than synchronicity in The Mechanic‘s plot. The film never really knows what it wants to be, when all it should  aspire to do is tell a story competently and build up to top-notch action.

In defense of the film, that last element is strong even if everything surrounding it is confused and arid. West deserves credit for his skill in staging a great action scene; when Steve and Arthur bust out and kill bad guys, they do so in bloody grand fashion, outgunning and out-fighting their foes and dispatching them with firearms and other, more deliciously violent means, but in the end it’s just well-edited and stylish arterial spray which signifies nothing. And ultimately, you’d think a guy like Arthur could get a little more creative given his proclivities as an assassin, but this is Jason Statham, and Jason Statham doesn’t mess around– fists, boots, and guns are all he really needs, with the occasional assistance from oncoming traffic and harpoons. West, Statham, and Foster show competence and then some, but that’s about it; the action here isn’t landmark in any way, nor does it stand out enough to be truly memorable.

Failing to really inspire in the one area it should seems like the death knell for a film like The Mechanic, but ultimately it’s the shell surrounding the gun play that kills the whole thing. The way the film panders is one thing; the way it completely misunderstands its own characters is another. Steve, initially, sets out to murder carjackers all across New Orleans in vengeance; incendiaries run in his veins, and he’s apt to detonate at any moment and take down any hapless petty crook in his vicinity. Foster’s all brooding anger and tension here, and he’s great at it, but when the inevitable turn kicks in and Steve discovers Arthur was the trigger man in Harry’s murder, he’s inexplicably cool and calculating in a way that the character flat out isn’t. Foster plays two people, essentially, and he’s wonderful to watch but not enough to make up for the film’s own disconnection from one of its principles.

As for Arthur, the mechanic himself? The film doesn’t misunderstand him because to do so it needs to actually grasp him in the first place. Is he looking for a human connection, or is he looking for salvation? Is he looking to escape? Callously, The Mechanic doesn’t concern itself with the character, and our one anchor into West’s film is spurned, leaving his plot to tread water in between shootouts before coming to a trite and perfunctory climax. As an hour and a half diversion, you can do worse, I suppose, but you could do much better; even in a gritty and blood-soaked action movie, character matters, and Statham doesn’t receive the opportunity to play one amidst the meandering and directionless timber of the story. It’s hard to tell what West sought to achieve with this aimless, flavorless film, but whatever goal he had in mind he falls far, far short of reaching it.

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Mechanic, 2011, dir. Simon West

  1. You’ve got Sutherland listed as Harry in the 2nd paragraph but Henry as the rest.

    It’s a shame that the writers chose not to actually give us a character instead of a plot functioner.

    • Thanks for the correction, Fitz! I’m not sure how West managed to so misunderstand and under-serve his characters here, since neither they nor their narratives are particularly complex, but there you have it. I’ve seen worse, but in saying that I’m really reaching to say anything nice about this movie at all.

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