The actor Statham most closely resembles is another Hong Kong great, Jackie Chan, whose physical comedy emphasizes the zaniness of violence. Like Chan, Statham is madcap—never more so than in his best film, Crank (2006). Crank has a ludicrous premise: Statham plays Chev Chelios, a hitman who is injected by a rival with a poison that stops the flow of adrenaline, gradually slowing the victim's heartbeat to a standstill. To stay alive, Chev must keep his adrenaline surging, which he accomplishes by rampaging across Los Angeles, leaving a trail of shattered glass, ruined shopping malls, decapitated lawn jockeys, and dead Triad gangsters. He injects drugs, steals police motorcycles, forces an E.R. doctor at gunpoint to "juice" him with a jolt from a defibrillator. In one memorable scene, Chev gets a natural adrenaline boost by having rough sex with his girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart) on a Chinatown street corner while a throng of onlookers gape and cheer.
Crank's co-directors, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, do not disguise their amusement at the movie's plot device, upping the ante with each new set piece, as they whip their cameras around showily and flood their frames with day-glo colors. Statham, meanwhile, hurls himself into his role, milking the scenes for all their screwball potential. The spectacle of Statham sprinting through the sun-strafed L.A. streets wearing only a hospital gown, socks, and sneakers brings to mind not just Chan but the breakneck antics of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.
The Transporter movies are less frantic than Crank, but they have their own tour de force sequences. In Transporter 3, Statham's Frank Martin steers his Audi off a bridge and into a lake to avoid being shot, surviving for several minutes underwater by breathing the air that he sucks out of his car's tires. Forget Jason Bourne and the riddle of existence: It's in moments of deadpan hilarity like this—when the bug-eyed Transporter wraps his lips around the valve of a Goodyear radial—that Jason Statham offers an edifying theory of action cinema.
The Bourne pictures (and other movies of their ilk) try to have it both ways, endowing their heroes with superhero powers that they present in a gritty, verité style. But Statham revels in the artifice and absurdity of an art form that suspends all physical and metaphysical laws, that gives us a guy dangling from a minute hand above the bustling midtown grid and an archeologist outrunning a giant boulder—that shows us a man driving his car into a lake and, minutes later, shows us the same man, careening across dry land in the same car, in a suit as crisply pressed as it was before man, car, and couture got dunked. Call them action-adventure movies if you like. The truth is, they're comedies, and they're telling a joke that never gets old: He was dead … but he got better.
Slate V: The critics on Crank: High Voltage and other new movies