It’s nice that the action film seems to be on the verge of a come­back at the mul­ti­plex.  As Sylvester Stallone proved with The Expendables, it’s pos­si­ble to get peo­ple out to the the­aters to see punchups and shootouts on the big screen.  However, the down­side of this poten­tial come­back means it will be facil­i­tat­ed through the mar­ket­ing-dri­ven mind­set of mod­ern Hollywood.  In oth­er words, brace your­self for a lot of sequels, remakes and “reimag­in­ings” of old favorites.  The recent remake of The Mechanic is a exam­ple of this bur­geon­ing trend — and it illus­trates both its poten­tial and its draw­backs.

In a very savvy move, the pro­duc­ers brought back Lewis John Carlino to rework his orig­i­nal premise (he cowrote the script with Richard Wenk, the writer/director behind the under­rat­ed Vamp).  The redux main­tains the basic premise of the orig­i­nal:  Arthur Bishop is an assas­s­in work­ing for an unnamed cor­po­ra­tion that keeps him busy.  His one friend is men­tor and fel­low cor­po­ra­tion employ­ee Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland) — and it is thus inevitable that cor­po­ra­tion head Dean (Tony Goldwyn) will ask Arthur to kill him because he has endan­gered their busi­ness.

Arthur reluc­tant­ly does as he is told — and this is where the remake begins to diverge from its inspi­ra­tion.  When Harry’s trou­bled son Steve (Ben Foster) turns up for the funer­al, Arthur decides to help the direc­tion­less, angry young man find a vehi­cle for his rage by teach­ing him the art of assas­si­na­tion.  This cre­ates two new prob­lems for Arthur — the cor­po­ra­tion that employs him isn’t com­fort­able with him bring­ing in out­side help and Steve has a dan­ger­ous, self-destruc­tive bent that caus­es him to foul up on the job in a way that will endan­ger him­self and Harry both.

The fin­ished pro­duct plays sur­pris­ing­ly well.  Part of its watch­a­bil­i­ty comes from a game, well-cho­sen cast.  Statham has the fight­ing skills and the type of soul­ful grav­i­tas nec­es­sary to fill the lead role and Foster’s ner­vous, occa­sion­al­ly wry style of Method act­ing makes Steve into an inter­est­ing wild card.  Unlike the cool­ly amoral Steve of the orig­i­nal film, the Steve pre­sent­ed in this ver­sion veers between charm and psy­chosis and Foster cap­tures this volatile blend with­out miss­ing a step.  Sutherland does nice work, bring­ing both a believ­able world-weari­ness and an unex­pect­ed­ly play­ful qual­i­ty to his role, while Goldwyn offers a solid turn as a typ­i­cal­ly smarmy cor­po­rate scum­bag.

The Mechanic also ben­e­fits from the brisk, live­ly treat­ment it gets from its film­mak­ers.  Wenk and Carlino’s script offers new action set­pieces that dif­fer­en­ti­ate the film from its mod­el while also upping the pyrotech­nic ante.  It also shows a gen­uine ear for dia­logue, includ­ing a num­ber of tru­ly wit­ty throw­away lines.  Your Humble Reviewer has nev­er been a big Simon West fan (Con Air is wild­ly over­rat­ed by its fans while The General’s Daughter and Tomb Raider are flat-out dread­ful) but he acquits him­self nice­ly in the director’s chair here.  He guides his cast well, giv­ing them a styl­ish back­drop for their action and chore­o­graph­ing the action nice­ly.  The edit­ing on the action sequences is fast-paced as you’d expect from a mod­ern action film but it’s done with a sense of pur­pose here, man­ag­ing to con­vey the set­pieces in a abbre­vi­at­ed but com­pre­hen­si­ble style.  It also helps that the action is grim and unsan­i­tized — aside from one scene with uncon­vinc­ing CGI bul­let hits, most the excite­ment is con­veyed with real stunts and explo­sions.

Unfortunately, this redux of The Mechanic takes a few mis­steps in the sto­ry depart­ment.  Your Humble Reviewer is reluc­tant to blame Wenk and Carlino for the­se prob­lems as they smack of the kind of things a pro­duc­er would come up with when try­ing to “mod­ern­ize” an old premise.  In this case, the changes seem most­ly aimed at soft­en­ing Arthur up and mak­ing him the kind of the hero an audi­ence can eas­i­ly sym­pa­thize with.  For exam­ple, the film gives Bishop a rela­tion­ship with a pros­ti­tute that doesn’t seem to go any­where and makes sure that all his vic­tims are loath­some types (with the excep­tion of Harry, of course).  That said, those kinds of changes are to be expect­ed from a mod­ern film.

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

However, the more trou­bling addi­tion to this ver­sion of The Mechanic is the need to absolve Arthur of his respon­si­bil­i­ty for killing Harry by reveal­ing Harry’s cor­po­rate treach­ery to be a lie fab­ri­cat­ed by Dean.  This is a prob­lem on a few lev­els.  For starters, it makes Arthur look like a simp for being fooled so eas­i­ly (anoth­er char­ac­ter even says so when this twist is revealed).  On anoth­er lev­el, it also robs the film of the sense of dan­ger that the orig­i­nal had (in that ver­sion, Arthur sim­ply accepts his mis­sion and it reflects (a) how dan­ger­ous his world is and (b) the film’s sense of fate being inevitable).  Also, the scene in which this twist occurs involves a bit of writer’s con­ve­nience so dis­tract­ing­ly slop­py — Arthur see­ing Dean’s accom­plice milling about in an air­port — that it feels like a last-min­ute reshoot.

It’s also worth not­ing that this film’s take on its predecessor’s famous end­ing is annoy­ing, a kind of split-the-dif­fer­ence approach that tries to have it both ways.

*END SPOILERS*

If you can get past the commer­cial­ism-mind­ed sto­ry prob­lems, The Mechanic deliv­ers plen­ty of action in a stur­dy style.  However, it fails to best its pre­de­ces­sor because its attempts to shove the orig­i­nal premise into a mod­ern Hollywood mold fall short.  If the pro­duc­ers had a lit­tle more faith in its audience’s abil­i­ty to deal with a dark sto­ry­line then The Mechanic ver­sion 2011 might have been a mod­ern mini-clas­sic.  Instead, it has to set­tle for being an excit­ing but incon­sis­tent pro­gram­mer that wears its sto­ry tam­per­ing on its sleeve.