This past weekend, Jason Statham starred in his 31st film, the action-thriller sequel Mechanic: Resurrection. I haven’t seen it yet, but the reviews have been, predictably, bad. I don’t care, I’m going to see Mechanic: Resurrection anyway. Because when Statham’s at the helm, questions of quality hardly matter.
He’s 49 and has been making movies for almost 20 years now, and yet, when I talk about him, I treat him like he’s some under-the-radar rising talent. I tell myself that he’s just one really good film away from being the universally beloved action superstar I know he could be. But that’s crazy talk. The guy in front of us is the only guy Statham’s ever going to be. And that’s just fine by me.
In the modern era, no talented actor has been associated with such a high percentage of stinkers as Statham has. It’s not that he hasn’t been in good films. The 2008 crime drama The Bank Job is a sexy, smart heist film that emphasizes Statham’s soulful eyes and weathered look as he plays a man desperate for one big score. But, unfortunately, The Bank Job isn’t the first (or second) film that comes to mind when we think of what makes A Jason Statham Movie.
Instead, we flash on the Transporter films, where he grumbles menacingly and clobbers everyone in sight. Or the Crank films, where he grumbles menacingly and clobbers everyone in sight. As Shea Serrano writes in his ode to Statham’s many victims, “Killing a person in an action movie in an especially charismatic or intimidating way, which is a thing that Jason Statham excels at, is an easy way for a character to establish himself or herself as cool or credible.”
Each kill is fantastic, but Statham is like a pop star who makes great singles but can’t put together a good album. In brief, fleeting moments in his films, Statham is as dynamic, balletic and funny as anybody at the multiplex. In 2005’s The Transporter 2, he disconnects a bomb attached to the bottom of his Audi by jumping a ramp, somehow twisting the car in mid-air and knocking the bomb loose by gracefully dislodging it with a nearby crane hook.
I mean, seriously, look at this:
In any other movie, with any other actor, that would be totally stupid. In a Statham movie, it’s perfect. In truth, the best film he’s ever done may just be this Vulture supercut of all his punching scenes. With Statham, who needs plot, dialogue, coherence?
Within the first few minutes of any Statham movie, his fans know they’re about to settle in for something that isn’t worth Statham’s time or their s— which, on some level, he seems to understand. In fact, that’s part of his films’ appeal. Take, for instance, 2015’s Wild Card, a remake of a Burt Reynolds movie about a gambling addict working security in Las Vegas in which Statham plays the prototypical Statham antihero: a loner down on his luck who’s nonetheless fully confident that he’s the shit. Sporting that sly grin and a slight air of superiority, Statham somehow transcends layers of bad dialogue and lame plotting — at one point, he deftly uses a playing card like a ninja throwing star — as easily as his character dispenses with his puny foes.
Where previous generations of movie-star hulks hammed it up to seem like they were in on the joke — think Van Damme or Vladimir Putin’s personal action doll, Steven Seagal — Statham underplays marvelously, marrying his characters’ disdain for their situation with his own recognition that his latest rock-‘em-sock-‘em film is as average as the ones that came before. But unlike Statham’s spiritual contemporary, Fast and Furious co-star Dwayne Johnson, he doesn’t make a big show of acknowledging the ludicrousness of the movies he’s in. By going about his action-flick business without a wink, Statham has become the last unapologetic B-movie hero.
Our biggest movie star, Tom Cruise, has made his name by letting us see him sweat: He hangs outside tall buildings, clings to airplanes as they take off — he’s constantly running and shouting, reminding us, in every interview, that does his own stunts. Statham wins our affection by doing the exact opposite. Even when he’s busting heads and breaking bones, he’s a picture of total cool. There’s a graceful, dancer-like quality to his kicking, punching and shooting, the elegance of his action set pieces enhanced by his suave vibe and British accent.
Because Statham delivers his reliably minimalist dialogue with stoic understatement, his characters are always an enigma. If he were just another meathead — say, Stallone — we’d figure there’s less than meets the eye there. But with Statham, there’s a cosmopolitan flair — a very European sense of ennui — that keeps his characters captivating. Sure, at this stage of Statham’s career, we’re kidding ourselves that great depths exist within that shaved head, but why give up the illusion if it means seeing Statham do what he does?
After all, he can still sometimes luck into a great movie. Last summer, he was one of the best parts of Spy, Melissa McCarthy’s very funny action-comedy that featured Statham as a pitch-perfect parody of a badass superspy. Spouting off his high-octane accomplishments — the dude reattached his own severed arm — Statham’s Rick Ford is a goof on the inscrutable killing machines that made this man a star, and it’s cheering to see how easily he can laugh at his own image. He’s so good in Spy, in fact, that I’ve allowed myself another 10 years of mediocre Statham vehicles before I start worrying again that he’ll never reach his potential. But who am I fooling? He’s already at the top of his game. It may not be a very high peak but, man, he sure makes it look pretty.