The Action Hero We Want Isn’t Always The One We Deserve

The following blog spells out many things that could spoil these movies for delicate flowers. Assuming of course, they could be spoiled.

With every generation comes a new action hero. Usually, it is the one we want. Rarely, however, is it the one we deserve. In 1972 Charles Bronson made a film called “The Mechanic.” I can’t say anyone wanted this man as an action hero, but for once it was the one we deserved. It was a dispassionate look at contract killer who’s specialty was making his murders look like accidents. We get glimpses of the man throughout the film trying to be human. He listens to classical music while drinking fine wines inside his impeccably styled mansion hideaway.  In a utterly bizarre scene he pays a high priced hooker extra money to write him love letters. Through it all though, his life remains as passionless as the death that follows him. This is not a flaw of the film. It’s simply a fact of it. Much like Robert DeNiro’s character Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” Bronson’s character Arthur Bishop, lives outside of mainstream emotion. He sees it, and tries at times to connect with it, but remains caught, unable to engage with it on any real level. In a way, both characters are innocents. They diverge in where their violence is rooted. Bickle is, in his own way, righting wrongs. Bishop is more simply a psychopath. He knows and seems to accept who he is, and the lack of motivation, outside of a paycheck, is meaningless for what he does and how he feels about it.

In “The Mechanic” Bishop is paid by a shadowy group to kill. The reasons these men are to be killed remain hidden and unnecessary to the plot. What is it to a hired gun why he was hired? “The Mechanic’s” strength parallels and mocks the flaws of Bronson’s infamous franchise “Death Wish.” In the “Death Wish” films there is a clumsy attempt to make the violence palatable because of the terrible and heinous acts, predominately to women, that occur early on. These crimes set off mild mannered architect Paul Kersey into brutal acts of vigilantism exacting the ultimate revenge on street thugs. The hook is the murder of his wife in the first film, his daughter in the second, the potential love interest in the third, his new girlfriend’s daughter in the fourth and finally the now prosaic threat his new (and different) fiance faces in “Death Wish 5.” The lesson being it is okay to shoot the thugs after they have shot your girl, I guess. Maybe that’s not the point to argue. Its just a cheap shot, a gimmick with little or no emotional impact except to shock. “The Mechanic” has no need for such excuses. It in turn becomes a much more effective thriller and meditation on violence in our world and far less nauseating than the “Death Wish” franchise’s tried and true riff of female violence. The pay off in “The Mechanic” is cold, exacting, and perfect, and (here’s the spoiler alert – you have been warned) I don’t mean when Jan-Michael Vincent’s hit-man-in-training’s car explodes, but rather right before that, with a glass of wine. We’re conditioned to think Bishop will get up. He doesn’t. More on that glass of wine later.

So, here it is 2011, and “The Mechanic” has been remade. What have we learned? Brit, Jason Statham, is in the Bronson role, and that’s well enough, though Statham always looks like he’s coping Bruce Willis, and I do miss the Bronson mustache. Now, here’s the action hero we want, and certainly not the one we deserve. The movie is pretty slick in all the right places. No bumps in the action, no bad acting, or at least good enough to get the job done. That said, on other levels, important levels, this movie is a disaster. First, the rewrite keeps to the idea that the kills are to look like accidents. In 1972 that meant Bronson caused a gas oven to ignite and torch an apartment. In 2011 that meant Statham somehow sneaked into a rich guys indoor swimming pool, which was either so deep or murky that his black wet suit blended right into the bottom, and when the target’s bodyguard turned away for a second, Statham grabed the man and held him until he drowned. Then in an act of sheer brilliance he floats back up to the top and flops the guys arms around, which makes everyone think he’s still swimming laps so no one sounds the alarm for a lucky extra minute. Oh, and the guy was some evil drug dealer.
There’s the first problem. Every guy Statham kills deserves it. Who’s that for? The contract killer’s code of ethics? Is he samurai? No, he’s just a killer. So, it’s for us, so we like him.

The remake also keeps the Mechanics expensive tastes through an excruciatingly blatant foreshadowing scene of “never touch my super awesome and very expensive turntable,” which leaves little doubt that it will later be touched and bad things will happen. I don’t know what they call that in scriptwriting-land, it’s done enough so I surmise it’s considered genius, but out here, in crappy-movie-watching-land its simply known as lame. But, much trouble is taken to continue to assure us that this is pretty much a good guy who just happens to have a dirty job. I can even see him on PBS. He drives a pick-up truck. He’s nice to an elderly black man who watches his boat in exchange for booze (classy touch, boys). Most importantly, he has a father-son relationship with an older hit man, Donald Sutherland, who now gives him assignments. Sutherland loves him like a son, more than his own apparently, which sets up The Big Murder. Spoiler’s abound, you have been warned, again, I’m not a movie critic, just a critic. Statham’s Bishop, against his own judgment – being like it’s his father figure and all, kills Sutherland’s character (I can not be bothered to imdb his name) who’s now become a contract hit himself. Statham the befriends Sutherland’s estranged son, teaches him how to be a hitman, learns the murder was a set-up and then seeks revenge.

Now, remember the 1972 version? More or less the same thing happened except, Bronson’s Bishop didn’t really care about the hit, and is compelled to reach out to the son, not out of any allegiance to his father, but rather what seems like curiosity as he’s found a kindred psychopath spirit. The murky movie motive of revenge never enters into it at all.

The Kid is played by Jan-Michael (what the hell happened to my career after Airwolf?) Vincent in the original as a clear as glass sociopath. No emotion, just plucking the wings of flies. Ben Foster plays him in the remake as an over the top, sloppy, emotional wreck of a guy, who is completely unbelievable as someone you’d knowingly take on to be a contract killer – not that I know, but I’m just saying, come on now, really?  That said, he’s still the best thing in the movie.

An interesting side note is one of the hits is for another, possibly competing, contract killer, who’s weakness (everyone has one) is young men. Not underage men from what I saw, just younger than himself. Since the movie’s premise is only the bad get killed, but being a contract killer isn’t bad enough to make that list, the watcher is left to speculate just what exactly this guy’s big sin is. Oh, right. I see. He’s gay. Bam.

Only in the 2000's does talking on a phone look this cool.

So, we come to the end of each film, both with The Kid looking to kill The Hitman. In ’72 it’s simply a hit. The shadowy group believes Bronson’s time has come. In 2011 its an emotionally fueled revenge scenario. That Kid’s really, really upset. In 1972 The Kid has become The Master. Remember that wine glass? Everyone has a weakness. The old man has one last trick though and it’s a varoom and kaboom one. In 2011 The Kid never grows up, still gets the varoom and kaboom treatment, but the Mechanic simply drives off into the sunset in his spare pick-up. Again, pretty lame.

So, I’m left with two B-action films that agitate me more than they should. The first works well, unintentionally perhaps, as a meditation on violence in our world. Vietnam was raging, lots of people were dying and, like in the film, no one really quite knew why. The second works poorly, except to waste two hours on some rock ’em sock ’em level. Wars are still being waged, people are still dying, but the difference in these movies and these wars is in 2011 we’ll go a long way to explain why it’s okay to kill, would rather not dwell on the deeper implications of our actions, and regardless of how bad it gets, there’s going to be a pick-up truck to take us away from it all in the end. Fin.

About Iaan Hughes

Iaan Hughes is a deejay on 91.3 KBCS in Seattle. He plays country & western music.
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