Jason Statham's greatness announced itself early in his acting career—88 seconds into his motion picture debut, to be precise, in the opening sequence of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). Statham plays Bacon, a small-time criminal peddling stolen merchandise ("Handmade in Italy, hand-stolen in Stepney") on a London street corner. Suddenly, the police show up; Bacon and his accomplice take flight; and then, rounding a rain-slickened corner with a suitcase under his arm, he nearly tips over, performing a ridiculous little shuffle-step at an almost-45-degree angle to the pavement, his feet moving furiously but his forward motion momentarily stalled, like Wile E. Coyote in the instant before he realizes he has run out of clifftop road and is about to plummet 5,000 feet into a canyon. Whereupon Bacon regains his footing, vaults a barrier, and spills the entire contents of his suitcase as he races down a flight of stairs.
This is the essence of Statham-ism, a mix of bionic brute force and slapstick—Robocop meets Keystone Cops. It's a formula that has made Statham the biggest action hero going: Since 2001, Statham star vehicles have grossed $500 million worldwide. Currently, Statham is the face of two hit franchises: The Transporter, whose latest sequel, Transporter 3 (2008), earned more than $100 million, and Crank, whose second installment, Crank: High Voltage, arrives in theaters this Friday with the irresistible tag line "He was dead … But he got better."
For those keeping count, that's one more action movie franchise than any other Hollywood leading man can claim, unless you want to put a check-mark in Vin Diesel's column based on his voice-over work in the Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay video game. But Statham is largely unsung. Critics prefer Matt Damon's Jason Bourne movies—and why wouldn't they? With their virtuoso camerawork and existentialist overtones, the Bourne films are action flicks for cinéastes, and Damon's performances are admirably taut and understated. Of course, Damon is a thespian. Jason Statham is merely the biggest B-movie star in the world.
It's a distinction Statham has won through charm, which is unlikely since so much of his time on-screen is spent snapping necks and braining his adversaries with firehose nozzles. He has underdog appeal, coming across as a harried Everyman even as he performs superhuman feats of ass-kicking. In nearly all his films, he plays regular Joes: two-bit crooks (Snatch, Revolver, The Bank Job), law-enforcement lifers (The One, Chaos, War), a hard-luck ex-racecar driver (Death Race), and in the almost unwatchable fantasy epic In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2008), a humble farmer named, um, Farmer, who leads a ragtag army against the legions of the evil wizard Gallian. His suavest character, the Transporter series' Frank Martin, is also a working stiff. He's a chauffeur, a freelance courier hired to ferry stuff—contraband, bound-and-gagged Asian women—from Point A to Point B, no questions asked. In the opening scene of Transporter 2, Martin beats up five thugs who try to steal his car. "I have an appointment," he explains. "I don't like to be late." He's an action hero for economic downtimes: a contract worker stressed out about losing his clients.
Although his films don't always call for it, Statham can act. Guy Ritchie's movies have a way of bringing out the worst in actors—the macho over-emoting that ramps up absurdly amid explosions of Cockney rhyming slang. But in Lock, Stock, and Snatch (2000), and Revolver (2005), Statham got his parts just right, channeling the daffy spirit of the original Cockney caper movies, Ealing Studio classics like The Ladykillers (1955). He can do dramatic roles: He was touching as the car-salesman-tuned-heist-leader in the '70s period piece The Bank Job. And in the big popcorn movies, he has a knack for delivering stupid dialogue like he means it. It takes a special performer to bellow, "Tomorrow, we gouge evil from its shell!" like Statham does in Name of the King—with real feeling, without a hint of shame, while wearing a "medieval" tunic that looks like a bathrobe.
Statham's real genius, of course, is physical. Jaw clenched, sinews tensed, pate gleaming, Statham churns across the screen, as aerodynamic as the Audi A8 he drives in the Transporter movies. (Given a choice, you'd rather collide with the car than the chauffeur.) The athleticism is not a special effect. Before getting into acting, Statham was a member of the British National Diving Team. And he is an accomplished mixed martial artist, which explains his finesse in the kinetic Transporter fight scenes and in the climactic showdown in War (2007), where Statham and Jet Li face off, armed with sledgehammers and shovels. In fact, Statham's combination of brawn and flair is very Li-esque, very Hong Kong. Turns out, Hollywood's biggest Asian action star in years is a white guy from Sydenham, South London.
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