The Mechanic (CBS Films) makes you remember why movies like The Mechanic exist. On paper, the story sounds rote and overfamiliar: A world-class professional hitman teams up with a troubled youth to avenge the death of the young man's father, who was also the hitman's mentor in the art of elite assassination. In fact, the film is a remake of a 1972 thriller starring Charles Bronson and Jan-Michael Vincent. Yet this compact 90-minute fantasy of vigilante justice (written by Richard Wenk in collaboration with the writer of the original, Lewis John Carlino) feels fresh and satisfying.
Maybe it's the presence of Jason Statham, the British action star who has a physicality like no other actor out there right now: His lean, athletic, almost balletic grace harks back to the heyday of Steve McQueen or Bruce Lee. Or maybe it's The Mechanic's focus—unusual for a film of its type—on a male-male relationship that's more fraught than the usual pairing of two wisecracking buddies. Granted, this movie's primary concern is devising ever more creative ways for one man to hurl another off a skyscraper or through a glass coffee table. But director Simon West ( Con Air—need I say more?) has a light touch and an economy of style that turns The Mechanic into a lean, mean ridiculousness machine.
Arthur Bishop (Statham), the bullet-headed, elegantly cashmere-clad figure at that machine's helm, begins the movie as a hyper-competent and emotionally remote killer. We see him zipping around the globe in the employ of a shadow organization that targets arms dealers and other high-profile malfeasants. Arthur can drown a drug dealer in South America, escape the dealer's heavily defended compound, and get back to New Orleans in time for drinks and sex with a compliant, supermodel-gorgeous call girl (Mini Anden). Then he retires to his glass-fronted Modernist house on a bayou, one of the movie's many small triumphs of production design, to listen to Schubert on vinyl.
Arthur's life of refinement and contract murder is interrupted by the death of his longtime colleague Harry (Donald Sutherland, memorable even in a brief cameo). In search of an explanation for the organization's decision to do away with his mentor, Arthur crosses paths with Harry's son Steve (Ben Foster), a volatile and angry kid who drinks too much and picks fights for the wrong reasons. ("Never kill someone when you have a motive," advises Arthur when Steve nearly beats a would-be carjacker to death.)
The Arthur/Steve relationship at the movie's heart is what lifts The Mechanic above the common run of kablammo! action thrillers. Yes, it's sick that two men would bond Karate Kid-style over their shared passion for hired killing, but within this movie's twisted universe, their bond somehow counts as touching. Taking Steve under his wing clearly represents the first time Arthur has made himself vulnerable to anyone—which makes their connection more a muted love affair than the quasi-paternal link between Bronson and Vincent in the original. I appreciated the attention that this movie paid to man-on-man relationship dynamics. Even the action sequences (which are many) often advance the emotional story. It doesn't just matter whether Steve does away with the first man Arthur entrusts him to kill on his own; it matters whether he carries out the job to his hero's exacting standards.
Ben Foster is a small, slight man—a characteristic that was less noticeable when he played opposite Woody Harrelson in the bleak war drama The Messenger(2009). Next to Jason Statham, Foster looks downright boyish, and he plays Steve as a yearning, fragile kid with a taste for playing gangster. It's a way more layered performance than the role requires (and better—I'll risk assassination for saying it—than Jan-Michael Vincent's in the original). Statham provides the same injection of steroids as always, but it's a welcome rush.
Those freaked out by even B-movie-style violence should be warned that The Mechanic is of full of loud, thwacking gore, but as in an old martial-arts movie, the thwacks are gleefully and deliberately fake. There are also a few clever, blackhearted sight gags (like the moment when Statham makes a just-drowned man appear to swim by manipulating his limbs from below) and a catchphrase uttered by a villain that got the movie's biggest laugh at the screening I saw. And not because we were snickering ironically at it, but because it was a friggin' awesome catchphrase. I would love to crack you up by quoting it here, but spoiling that moment would be even more reprehensible than revealing who in this nicely tooled piece of junk makes it out alive.