The Mechanic (2011)
The Mechanic is a routine remake of a 1972 Charles Bronson hitman thriller. But when did “mechanic” ever become commonplace slang for “killer”? The film treats this concept like everyday knowledge. Bishop asks, “You know what a mechanic is?” A character responds matter-of-fact: “A hitman.” And the “mechanic” services are advertised via a system that includes a Craigslist style message board. It makes me wonder what the “adult services” section on Craigslist was really all about this whole time.
Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham) is the world’s greatest hitman. He meticulously plans his hits, deciding whether to make it look like a suicide or an accident or whether to send a message. He’s the cleanest of the cleaners. Then he gets a very delicate assignment – he’s to take out his mentor, Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland, taking a paycheck). Bishop’s boss (Tony Goldwyn) tells him that somebody is going to kill Harry. If it’s Bishop at least he can make it more humane. Bishop takes out his mentor and makes it look like a carjacking. Then Harry’s screw-up of a son, Steve (Ben Foster), appears to get vengeance for his old man. Bishop takes the hotheaded kid under his wing and trains his to be an assassin. Then, naturally, Bishop discovers he was set up and played by his employers, which brings about a larger examination on the cyclical nature of violence. Just kidding. There’s more killings.
To say that The Mechanic is a well-oiled formula picture is probably the kindest thing that can be said. It follows the path of its hitman forbears fairly close. The opening pre-credit sequence is a hit that established the abilities of our deadly lead, Donald Sutherland pops up just long enough to lay down the necessary exposition for the film, and then before we even finish the first reel (20-minute mark) the movie manages to introduce a sexy female (Mini Anden) whose only purpose, in grand action movie tradition, is to have enthusiastic sex with the lead whenever his tank is low. The rest of the movie follows rather lockstep with the various beats of the genre, meaning that Bishop takes on an apprentice, shows him the ropes, they bond by taking out the bad guys, and then of course the final show drops and the truth about Bishop killing Harry is revealed. Along the way, The Mechanic does enough to satisfy genre fans looking for the goods when it comes to thrills.
The best moments are the tag-team hitman efforts of Bishop and Steve. The stuntwork is occasionally impressive like when Bishop and Steve repel down a large hotel building or when a car literally drives all the way inside a bus. There’s a brutal, visceral fight between Steve and his first kill that serves as the film’s highpoint. It was these sequences that made me actually sit back and think, “You know, I think this concept would actually play best as an ongoing TV series.” Think about it: you’d have your target of the week, the planning and execution that always make for satisfying payoffs, and then week-to-week Bishop and Steve would continue their complicated relationship with Bishop’s guilt eating away at him while he tries to keep the truth at arm’s length away from his neophyte partner. To me, that sounds much more dramatically rich while still keeping the body count consistently high.
Of course by hewing so close to the confines of genre, The Mechanic also has very little going on outside of the mini-missions of the hit jobs. Bishop obviously has been misled and setup by his sleazy employers. It’s fairly clear early on that when a guy gets out of a limo in a three-piece suit and tells you that the old man in the wheelchair is the bad guy, red flags should be waving. There doesn’t seem to be a formidable opponent in this fight mostly because Bishop is long described as the best at what he does. So how do you stop the best? You’d think you’d hire other players of comparable skill or offer an incalculable amount of money to kill the guy. But our villain doesn’t do any of this. Five minutes prior to his death, our villain fails to even once threaten Bishop (don’t even pretend like that’s a spoiler). The main conflict is really the complicated connection between Bishop and Steve; however, this relationship is kept at a slow simmer the whole film, even after Steve pieces together the ugly truth. The character development is left mostly at an inferential level. That means that there are long stretches where the characters glare, dispense with macho cool speak, glare with sunglasses, and then fall back on some unique hitman quirk they all have to relax (Bishop listens to classical music on vinyl records because he takes life yet appreciates beauty! IRONY!).
But the ending needs to be further discussed because it leaves a terrible aftertaste. Given the dramatic dynamic at work, you pretty much know that Bishop and Steve will eventually come to a head. Bishop regrets what he’s done and is trying to make amends and find some meager form of redemption by taking Steve under his wing. He’s trying to make amends for the many sins in his life. He’s coming to terms with his life’s choices. So then you would assume (spoilers to follow) that when Steve ultimately seeks his own very deserved sense of vengeance, that the old pro would accept his doomed fate. It makes the most sense. It provides an end for the character’s journey, it provides closure to Steve, and it allows for an ending where people have to pay for their life’s mistakes. It’s not even downbeat because it feels right; it’s the correct ending for this material. It’s also the way the original Mechanic ended. But why end the movie on Statham accepting death? That would shuttle any chances for Mechanic sequels. And so, in a colossal cop-out, our hero narrowly survives and even manages to set up a bomb to take out Steve. While his young partner was emotionally unstable and looking for an outlet for his billowing anger, but the man was warranted in his vengeance. It’s entirely the wrong ending for not just this kind of movie but this movie specifically. It smacks of a pathetic attempt to leave the option open for a would-be franchise. It eliminates the entire idea of consequences mattering.
Statham gives the exact same performance he’s been giving in every movie for a decade plus. You know what you’re getting with a Statham action vehicle, for better or worse. He’s going to get shirtless, he’s going to dispatch the bad guys with relative ease, and never once will an expression flash across his stony face. He even verbalizes guilt while still being completely stone-faced. You don’t really buy any inner turmoil with this guy; he’s too “cool” to have feelings other than anger and vengeance. But then Foster practically redeems the entire movie. The young actor has been delivering intense performances for years now, whether it is an emotionally unstable guy in Alpha Dog, an emotionally unstable guy in Hostage, an emotionally unstable guy in 3:10 to Yuma, or an emotionally unstable guy in The Messenger. Notice a pattern? I’m amazed the reservoir of little tricks Foster finds to make Steve pop. Foster gives a far better performance than the movie deserves.
The Mechanic is a routine action movie that fails to rise above its genre conventions due to a lackluster plot, some vapid character development, and a horrendous ending. Statham does his thing, his shirtless chest gets due prominence, but the movie lets both he and a game Foster down. The kills are rather sloppy leaving behind mountains of evidence and dead bodies, and yet there seem to be no consequences. That makes for a long march to an inevitable conclusion with a few bursts of colorful violence to entertain. But what actually exists on the screen isn’t half bad. It’s fairly unremarkable, straightforward genre pap, but that can be suitable for the right audience and the right frame of mind. I was seeking something brainless to excite me when I caught The Mechanic, and it modestly achieved these modest goals.
Nate’s Grade: C