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.
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.
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.