I went to see the remake of THE MECHANIC the other day. It’s not particularly good but it got me to thinking about its leading man Jason Statham. In this adequate but uninspired thriller he’s playing the role that Charles Bronson created in the adequate but uninspired original back in 1972. But rather than essay Bronson, it occurred to me that Statham really is kind of doing a modern take on Clint Eastwood. And the more I thought about Statham and Eastwood, I realized they have a lot in common. In fact, I think Jason is the heir apparent to ol’ Clint. And if he pushes himself a little more he can get to that next level of ‘Eastwood-ness’ that will make him a better actor and a bigger star.
|Original caricature of Jason Statham by Jeff York (copyright 2011)|
Right off the bat, Jason has a lot in common with the leading man image that Eastwood carved out in the 1970’s. He’s handsome, rugged, a real tough guy, a man’s man, yet also a ladies man, wildly alluring to any comely female that needs a good shagging or transportation across some dangerous border or protection from a vengeful syndicate. In addition, Jason can do a great squint, just like Clint. Both scowl beautifully, seething with anger, wincing at the injustice of the world around them, like someone just dropped ass in their cars. And both guys deliver all their lines with a raspy, whispering, withering contempt. As if having to speak is an inconvenience. After all, these two are men of action. They speak softly and carry big sticks. They really shouldn’t have to speak when they have such perfectly good guns or fists to do the talking for them.
And both Statham and Eastwood continually play the lone wolf in their movies. They’re solitary men. Outsiders. These two are men from a bygone era where dignity and discipline were worn like badges of honor. The Statham and Eastwood character always has the strictest of codes. (Vince Lombardi could have raised ‘em!) And in almost every movie, these men of honor run up against ‘the man’, a sniveling, slithering, reptile who wears corporate unctuousness as slickly as his pricey suit. They’re usually working for some monolithic corporation or corrupt government and blithely toss around talk of “being just like them.” But they are nothing like Clint or Jason. Their code is greed. And that’s why Jason and Clint must kill them. But it’s not murder really, it’s just taking out the trash. And we can’t wait for them to do so.
Another parallel between Statham and Eastwood is their foray into comedy. Early in his career, Eastwood showed a surprising knack for getting laughs. Perhaps it was his stalwart wooden style that just made punch lines even droller and therefore funnier. Whatever it was, it worked, and in movies like THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY (1966) and EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE (1978) Clint got a lot of laughs just standing there being Clint. Stewing. Staring. Raising the corners of his eyebrows just a little higher to turn them into arch sidekicks.
|Original caricature of Clint Eastwood by Jeff York (copyright 2011)|
Statham has a knack for the farcical too. He’s even gone farther in his comedy with the CRANK series. In those romps, he played a man who has to keep his adrenaline up or his heart will explode. (Don’t ask.) With this wild opportunity to embrace farce, Statham literally grabbed it and ran with it. His hyper-kinetic physical performance got lots of guffaws. And yet he didn’t overact. Instead, he did the exact same thing that Clint did. He used his normal stoicism to make the absurd all the more believable. His range of A to D made these B thrillers quite a hoot.
The one area where Statham hasn’t shadowed Clint yet is in more serious work. By 1971, less than a decade into his film career, Clint had already made PLAY MISTY FOR ME, a terrific thriller where he played a regular guy, a San Francisco deejay with an obsessed female fan. Clint used his gentle voice and easygoing manner to become an everyman, someone the audience could relate to right away and root for. He wasn’t 10 feet tall, an indestructible cowboy no one could hang, or a maverick cop who singlehandedly catches serial killers. No, here he was a regular Joe, frightened, on the run, capable of bleeding. Clint Eastwood showed Hollywood that he could play vulnerable and it paid off in spades. It made audiences love him even more, and he started working that vulnerability into more and more of his screen roles, even the action heroes. It made Eastwood an even bigger star, and more importantly, a better screen actor.
The closest that Statham has come to playing a truly vulnerable character in the first ten years of his film career was in THE BANK JOB (2008). Not surprisingly, it’s his best movie. Based on the true story of a London bank robbery that veered horribly off the rails in 1971, it gave Statham a chance to play a character not in total control. His character of Terry is a down-on-his-luck and indebted car dealer, lured into pulling a heist to make some quick cash. But the job ends up summoning all sorts of nefarious parties into the plot, including corrupt police, ruthless political militants, and scandal-ridden royals. Statham doesn’t drive fast or chop and kick with black belt perfection once here. Instead, he frets, sweats and loses his cool completely as he scrambles to save his money, his friends, and his life. He’s utterly believable playing an average bloke. And it behooves him to do more of that in his career.
As Nicholas Cage makes one bizarre dud after another that nobody goes to see, and Bruce Willis embraces his AARP membership, there really is only one action picture lead left and that’s Jason Statham. Like Clint, he can play these roles well into his sixties if he stays handsome, fit and sturdy. But I’m hoping that he forays into more and more serious fare. When Statham plays a real guy, he’s even better. Just like Clint. So go ahead, Jason, make my day.