Last Action Hero: Jason Statham Plays It Straight



By Christoph Huber

“Jason makes everything better.”—Paul Feig, quoted in Esquire’s 2015 Statham cover story

It’s difficult to think that we should be grateful to Guy Ritchie for anything, but I guess he deserves credit for casting Jason Statham in his debut, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). Statham has since gone on to become the most reliable and formidable exemplar of the postmodern action film. Has this millennium brought us another movie star outside of Asia qualifying as an international icon in this field? The big blockbusters come with their own set of rules and digital overkill—last year’s Furious 7, in which Statham easily excels as a menacing opponent, is a good example—so by sticking mostly to mid-level genre productions Statham may be the final heir to a long popular tradition. Those who came after him—foremost among them Scott Adkins, with World Wrestling Entertainment continuing to churn out more hopefuls—have gone straight to video, along with many of his predecessors, from Jean-Claude Van Damme to Steven Seagal. But athletic Statham action remains exclusively a big-screen product, with at least one reliable quality item per year since the Transporter franchise rolled off Luc Besson’s assembly line, molding Statham’s image in the 2000s. Talking about other actors associated with the Bessoniverse, e.g., Jean Reno or late B-pic bloomer Liam Neeson, you’d say they’ve made another one of their “action pictures,” but no such qualifications are needed for a “Jason Statham movie.” As with, say, the “Charles Bronson movie” of yore, the audience knows what to expect.

Whereas Bronson seemed mostly content to pick up paychecks for Cannon fodder after his belated breakthrough to stardom, Statham has ambitiously branched out while trying not to alienate his core action audience—he usually calls it “playing to my strengths.” He’s alternated straightforward Statham movies with slightly action-inflected dramas like Stephen Knight’s Hummingbird (2013), or, most fortuitously, the type of old-school crime films so rare these days, notably Taylor Hackford’s superb Richard Stark adaptation Parker (2013) and Statham’s personal pet project Wild Card (2015), featuring unexpectedly able direction by Simon West (whom Statham brought on after failing to get Brian De Palma). Wild Card is based on a William Goldman novel, or, rather, Goldman’s original script for Heat (1986), a Burt Reynolds vehicle that allegedly burned through six directors during its problematic shoot, and which Goldman considers “one of my major disasters.” Though Heat is much more interesting than its toxic reputation suggests, Wild Card gets it fully right, rekindling the kind of intelligent, unpretentious entertainment the dream factory used to thrive on—and which offered charismatic screen presences opportunities to thrive in.

Never having taken acting lessons (“I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing,” he told Men’s Fitness magazine), Statham is both a self-confessed admirer and successor of Hollywood stars projecting “laid-back coolness,” citing Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and Clint Eastwood as his models. He’s never given a bad performance, even as he’s made his share of forgettable films. Turning 50 next year, he seems to have bloomed in maturity: Statham’s take on Stark’s eponymous gangster is no less convincing than Lee Marvin’s redubbed Walker in Point Blank (1967), and his gambling-addicted Las Vegas bodyguard in Wild Card is a more fully rounded characterization than Reynolds’. Statham’s success may be modest, but it’s special. Major mainstream acceptance—he was on the cover of Esquire in 2015—has come in the wake of intermittent big-league appearances following his official admission to the action pantheon with a key part in Sylvester Stallone’s all-star Expendables roundups. Naturally averse to pretension, Statham has never overreached nor sold out, bringing the same conviction even to underdeveloped parts, through which he coasts on the strength of his innate cinematic charisma.

More crucially, in these times of rampant CGI illusions, Statham has managed to maintain a contract with his audience that is still based on believability, right down to the well-publicized overlap of his real-world predilections with signature traits of his screen persona: he’s skilled in martial arts (favouring submission wrestling), loves racing cars, and calls himself an “adrenaline junkie.” Statham also prefers to do his own stunts (“People walk differently, people talk differently, and they fight differently,” is how he succinctly explained his aversion to doubles in The Transporter DVD extras) and is staunchly opposed to the digital onslaught: “If you do an action movie without a single frame of CGI, you’ve done something amazing.” He even claims to have ensured analogue Statham action from his own pocket: “Fahkin’ hate green screen. Pay significant amounts of money never to do it again. You cannot fake adrenaline,” he told Details in 2012, venting his anger at today’s digitized comic blockbuster action. His no-nonsense approach to work is abetted by what the working-class Brit Statham has described to Esquire as an inherited “peasant mentality,” which makes him ponder having accepted too many offers. It’s honesty similar to the one characterizing his screen work, starting with his lucky Guy Ritchie break.

A self-professed “man of four careers,” Statham started out in black-market street hustling as a teenager while pursuing a career in sports. Childhood pal, future soccer star, and fellow Lock, Stock discovery Vinnie Jones made him join the grammar school soccer team before Statham settled on diving. For 12 years he competed for the British national squad on the ten-metre platform and three-metre springboard (clips on YouTube), ranking as the world’s 12th best platform diver in 1992. Spotted by a modelling agency during training, he was soon signed by UK fashion label French Connection. (Though he initially had to supplement his occasional modelling gigs by returning to selling “fake perfume and jewelry on street corners” and appearing in mid-’90s music videos for Erasure and The Beautiful South.) “We chose Jason because we wanted our model to look like a normal guy. His look is just right for now: very masculine and not too male-modelly,” per the words of a company spokesperson, hinting at a quality that would bolster Statham’s movie career: salt of the earth, but especially stunning in fine suits.

The French Connection connection—the label’s CEO was involved in getting Lock, Stock off the ground—brought Statham to Ritchie’s attention. The upstart director realized he’d found a natural for the street huckster he’d written as a major part. Statham had the patter down blind, and hit the ground running in the movie’s opening scene, parlaying his “handcrafted,” “hand-stolen” objects to a street crowd: “Too late, too late will be the cry when the man with the bargain has passed you by!” The British Lad’s answer to already tiresome post-Tarantino hipster violence, Lock, Stock represented the era’s spruced-up soulless cool, but as a launching pad for Statham it made a visionary announcement: “His days of selling moody goods on street corners are numbered. It’s time to move on and he knows it,” in the words of the film’s narrator as he introduces Statham’s Bacon. The player—never conceiving of himself as an actor in the trained sense, Statham has been content “to do what I needed to do in front of the camera”—surely seized the opportunity to bring home the bacon in a career that, at age 31, must have seemed a windfall for somebody whose childhood dream was to become a stuntman (at best).

Statham reteamed with Ritchie for more hollow crime-comedy flashiness in Snatch (2000), wherein Statham’s “stupid” face (for a freeze-frame gag about stupid faces) is the only genuinely funny moment. (That said, the film did make a couple of notable additions to the Statham repertoire with the hat assigned his luckless boxing promoter and the full realization of his vocal potential in extended voiceovers; that recognizable, deep hum would soon be heard in video games like Call of Duty.) Established as the go-to likeable Brit rogue, and called in for repeats of said shtick in unimaginative remakes like the 2001 Longest Yard retread Mean Machine (in which he gave Vinnie Jones support as “mental” fallout from his Ritchie roles) and The Italian Job (2003), Statham was eager to try out other role types for size in his first decade on screen. The otherwise hopeless hip-hop drama Turn It Up (2000) sees his well-dressed gangster boss “Mr. B” projecting fatherly authority, the proper veneer masking a propensity for mean violence—a negative anticipation of his trademark Transporter character Frank Martin, whom Statham described as “sort of a bad guy, but he does good things.” But his real potential became apparent in two mistreated science-fiction highlights from 2001, whose popular and critical rejection inaugurated a problem of Statham appreciation: namely, mainstream media narrowing focus down to PR-pushed “big names” has focused the Statham persona on a few brands—Ritchie, Besson, The Expendables and Fast & Furious franchises—while leaving the honest B-picture work that is his actual forte in the dust.

Admittedly, John Carpenter’s tragic box-office flop Ghosts of Mars was a special case. Pitting a police squad against possessed Martian settlers, Carpenter goes for an ambitious but not entirely successful mash-up of his earlier works, from Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) through The Thing (1982) and Prince of Darkness (1987) to Vampires (1998). The film’s otherwise standard action template is given weirdly dreamlike shape through flashback-within-flashback narration and surreal superimpositions, to the point that it feels like a dirge for a type of filmmaking gone out of fashion. Even the KISS-style monster makeup confirms that nothing has changed since the ’80s, the red hell of Martian future just an apocalyptic projection of the capitalist wasteland we’ve been speeding into since the days of Reaganomics. (The only thing that has changed is that formally achieved filmmaking like Carpenter’s is no longer appreciated, supplanted by a postmodern directing style—exemplified by Ritchie—that replaces legible action with a barrage of self-satisfied distraction techniques to complement the age of digital dispersal.) Originally considered for the film’s Kurt Russell-type lead (which for star-power reasons went to Ice Cube), Statham plays “the new guy, Jericho,” as a colleague disapprovingly remarks of him; Carpenter’s future society is matriarchal, thus males are considered weak links. But on his first patrol, Jericho displays a swagger that sets him apart from the entire team and exudes an adventurous confidence that extends from his constant come-ons to his female commander (Natasha Henstridge) to some serious fighting right up to his gruesome offscreen demise.

As a fan of Asian martial arts (he considers Bruce Lee the greatest), Statham must have been overjoyed to act opposite Jet Li in the same year as Ghosts. But The One—which posits a wormhole-connected system of 125 alternate universes—is mostly a crazy showcase for writer-director James Wong. Hobbled here only by a few Matrix-era effects, Wong’s almost anachronistically clean style, bolstered by geometric compositions and strong angles that never come off as capricious, may be a reason for his short directorial career (he’s now mostly producing and writing TV). A renegade officer of the interdimension-policing Multiverse Authority (MVA), Li has eliminated his counterparts in other universes, gaining their strength. When he comes for his last—and similarly boosted—alter ego, everybody else is simply no match, including Statham’s procedure-frustrated MVA officer, the wackily named Funsch. Playing third fiddle to the two Lis—basically he serves as the buddy of the good one—Statham must have been disappointed that his fighting skills remained underused. But he’s allowed to bring out the sincerity that’s a crucial part of his appeal, most evident in his genuinely crushed delivery of the sentence, spoken upon learning of his MVA partner’s death: “I am alone now.”

It’s that sincerity—and not just the character’s impeccable code, driving abilities, and elegant suits—that brings a touch of class to the Bessoniverse in The Transporter (2002), directed by debutant Louis Leterrier (with Hong Kong veteran Corey Yuen guiding the action scenes). While its fleetness sets it apart from habitual Bessonian overdrive, the film constantly threatens to disintegrate over the course of its merely 90 minutes—that it doesn’t is testament to Statham’s invaluable anchoring presence. “Transporting is a precise business” is how proud and proper professional Frank Martin explains his no-questions-asked (but strictly regulated) driver-for-hire enterprise. His adherence to the rulebook is severely tested for comic effect, splendidly pulled off by Statham’s natural deadpan—most effectively in the opening, as his calm, imperturbable insistence clashes explosively and hilariously with the lethal consequences. For the rest of the film, Statham’s poise and underplaying of Martin’s casual stylishness almost ennobles a set of Besson action clichés, as he outmanoeuvres cops and dastardly gangsters when not exchanging buddy banter with his best enemy, a police inspector (Chabrol veteran François Berléand, popular enough to return for the sequels). Even the ritual misogyny endured by resident female object Shu Qi seems mitigated by his civil conduct.

There’s something pleasantly unforced about Statham’s persona (even when he resorts to force) that came into its own with The Transporter. With his wiry physique and short-cropped bowling-ball head, he’s an embodiment of economical action at odds with the excessive physicality of the Schwarzenegger school. Even as the sequels followed the law of diminishing returns, heaping on self-conscious irony—Leterrier’s Transporter 2 (2005) compensates with Kate Nauta’s unrepentantly evil Amazonian adversary, while Transporter 3 (2008) is chopped into overblown po-mo action nirvana by Besson’s tellingly named stooge Olivier Megaton—Statham played it straight, his naturally unflappable demeanour proving equally suited for comedy.

But the real breakout of Statham’s comic gifts came with Neveldine/Taylor’s speed-punk dives into amoral anarchy, Crank (2006) and Crank: High Voltage (2009), which hilariously transformed Stathamite solidity into a literal running joke. Poisoned, D.O.A.-style, by a gangland rival, Statham’s hitman Chev Chelios has to constantly “juice up”—via constant adrenaline injections in the first film, full-on electroshock treatment the second time around—to keep going and get payback. Deservingly discussed as they were by Adam Nayman in Cinema Scope 50, I shall give these key Statham works undeserved short shrift—ditto for Paul W.S. Anderson’s awesome Death Race (2008) and the first Expendables (2010)—apart from noting that Crank: High Voltage achieves a Looney Tunes level of freedom (see Bai Ling’s beyond-words performance) that, for once, reconciles digital madness with Statham’s analogue self. Right up to his final, fiery kiss-off to the camera, Statham scales such absurd parodic heights here that one wonders how people could ever have been surprised by his fine self-spoof in Paul Feig’s Spy (2015).

Cameos confirmed Statham’s acceptance in popular culture—his bit at the start of Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004) channels Frank Martin, his doomed French national soccer coach in The Pink Panther (2006) is that wretched reboot’s only saving grace—while honing serious variations of his persona. More evidence of his slowly rising status came when he played a threatening kidnap-gang leader in Cellular (2004), and disgruntled cops for underachiever pairings with Wesley Snipes (Chaos, 2005) and Jet Li again (War [2007], with Statham in the meatier part this time). More challenges came in two wretched 2005 films, both of which announced their pretensions by giving Statham hair. (His instantly recognizable bald-dome physicality is still crucial to his persona: in 2013, both Homefront and Hummingbird make a big deal of his initial long-haired appearance, his return-to-normal head shavings after the first act acquiring near-sacrificial character; also, throughout his filmography, the headbutt doubles as a visual gag.) Statham’s coke- and S/M-addicted banker in the abusive but self-pitying chamber play London showed he could (co-)carry a dialogue-based film just as easily as an action flick. The critically lambasted Ritchie reunion Revolver, meanwhile (co-produced by Besson, who is also credited for adapting Ritchie’s screenplay!), traded jokey macho jerk-offs for vain grasps at spiritual significance. At least this would-be mindfuck yields two remarkable performances: Ray Liotta’s flamboyant turn as a kind of perverted Tony Curtis, and Statham’s poignant, Mitchum-style weariness, as if Ritchie’s megalomania had worn him down and out.

A real turning point came with Roger Donaldson’s thoroughly enjoyable heist film The Bank Job (2008), supposedly based on the true story of a 1971 bank robbery allegedly set in motion via MI5 to get sex pictures of Princess Margaret out of a deposit box. A critical and commercial hit, the film balanced comically tinged character drama and period-dyed action suspense, a balance that fit right into Statham’s career considerations. While playing to his strengths with “Jason Statham movies,” he long talked about combining the “fun” pictures with “serious” ones. With the Expendables series serving as a high-profile example of the former, this decade has seen Statham steering his smaller productions in more substantial directions, albeit shakily at first. In 2011 alone, he continued his line in fact-based thrillers with Killer Elite—which, while not fully living up to the ambitions of its Peckinpah-cribbed title, at least offered a chance to hear Statham’s hitman being called “kiddo” many times by Robert De Niro—valiantly attempted to remake The Mechanic (which, though Statham fills Bronson’s shoes honorably, does not fully live up to Michael Winner’s taciturn 1972 masterpiece due to Simon West’s still somewhat overdone direction and a final cop-out), and starred in the rock-solid British crime-novel adaptation Blitz (fully subscribing to the aesthetics of contempo quality television, for better and worse, as a cop killer is hunted by Statham’s equally violence-prone cop and Paddy Considine’s homosexual chief).

The blockbuster intermezzi securing bankability, Statham has now found his footing, despite the slight misstep of Homefront—an ’80s remix gift to his designated Expendables heir from scriptwriter Stallone, who had initially developed it as a Rambo sequel—which is sunk by Gary Fleder’s tone-deaf direction. Even Statham overdoes it with the soulful stares (surely he’s channelling Sly) while caring for his sweet kid daughter and being drawn into fights by James Franco’s strung-out drug dealer (who is only topped by his “meth-whore” girlfriend Winona Ryder). No less implausible, but vastly more interesting, is the Statham-and-kid pairing—he a disgraced cage fighter cum special-ops assassin, she a Chinese mathematical genius—proposed by Safe (2012). Despite some shaky-cam proclivities, writer-director Boaz Yakin deftly arranges the action (a car’s front-seat passenger gets shot, clearing the sightline to the rear-view mirror in which the rest of a kidnapping plays out) and concocts such a rousing opening act of time-leaps and long takes that it’s a disappointment when the film recedes into conventional thriller action. But everybody’s self-justifying mantra in the ongoing socio-economic crisis (“Times are tough all over!”) hints at Statham’s serious development. Forced underground and reduced to bumdom, his character painfully experiences today’s social gap—a ploy repeated the following year, with an Iraq War background, in Stephen Knight’s commendable character drama Hummingbird, whose smart concessions to the Statham persona culminates in an entirely atypical spoon attack.

Fully integrating the graceful agility key to Statham’s action appeal and his newfound interest in deeper character development, the two daylight noirs Parker and Wild Card benefit immensely from craftily constructed sources; just consider the orchestration of Parker’s opening fun-fair heist (and its unexpected aftermath). Even Statham’s introduction is a fun reversal: as his credit appears, only his feet and hands have been seen onscreen, their movement instantly recognizable as his. Propelled by visible enjoyment in front of the camera, Statham can even imbue a simple walking shot with music. Irritatingly, a full view from behind then shows a white-haired man with glasses in a black suit, then the frontal countershot reveals Statham, disguised as a priest (the white collar has become visible). That the American icon Parker is played by a British actor is slyly acknowledged in the gag of Parker pretending to be a Texan (hat and all), but Parker’s principles are tailor-made for the Statham persona: “I don’t steal from people who can’t afford it, and I don’t hurt people who don’t deserve it,” he explains during the hold-up to assure people there’s no reason to worry. Not for them it turns out, but for Parker, who rebounds on a complex revenge quest that doubles as a moral mission in an amoral universe (punch line: “It’s not about the money!”) with a spiritual chaser to boot, underlined by a second punch line too good to spoil.

If Parker is propulsive even at two hours, Wild Card comes off as totally relaxed over the course of its taut 90 minutes. More character study than thriller, its loser vibe faintly echoing New Hollywood crime-movie melancholy, Wild Card has Statham as Nick Wild, a mercenary turned bodyguard stuck in Vegas who dreams of a Mediterranean sailboat escape. Introduced acting out the deflation of macho bluster for hire, Wild is reluctantly drawn into a confrontation with gangsters by an abused female friend and annoyed by a nerdy young computer-age millionaire before he simply goes on a gambling binge, creating a detour for the film’s whole midsection. Clearly, Wild Card is predicated less on its episodic plot than careful attention to various atmospheres and how characters react to each other, highly unusual in today’s testosterone-fuelled marketplace. Even director West seems to agree, further toning down his MTV-age mannerisms while sensibly handing over the (only) three action scenes—each one in a completely different register, but all advancing story and character development—to Corey Yuen, who does well. He even lets Statham use a spoon again. Huber Christoph