It's probably blasphemy to even think this, much less say it out loud, but here goes: The remake of "The Mechanic" starring Jason Statham is better than the 1972 original starring Charles Bronson - and Statham is better in the lead role than Bronson was.
Now, "The Mechanic" may not have been one of Bronson's stronger films during this era but it has achieved a certain following among genre fans. In retrospect it was a bit languid, it meandered here and there with its groovy vibe - although it did feature a breathtakingly wordless, 15-minute opening as Bronson's assassin character laid out the works for an elaborate kill in a seedy, downtown Los Angeles apartment building.
That's the whole point of both films: The hit men at the center of them pull off assassinations that don't look like assassinations. They're unfortunate accidents, untimely illnesses, anything else. Both men function in a world where morals and rules don't seem to apply, where law enforcement is practically nonexistent and the relationship between a hit man and his mentor is meant to seem as touching as the one between a father and son.
Director Simon West ("Con Air") and screenwriter Richard Wenk have taken those core concepts from Lewis John Carlino's original script, moved the action to steamy New Orleans and pumped out a movie that's slicker and sleeker, leaner and meaner - not in an idiotic way, although characters do walk away from explosions without flinching, but rather to reflect the actor and the times.
Statham, the British star of the "Transporter" and "Crank" films and an old favorite of Guy Ritchie, has a quietly fierce physicality, a stylish masculinity that makes him appealing to both men and women. He's a modern-day bad-ass, and "The Mechanic" plays up the best of his attributes. He's coolly efficient but also clearly longing for human contact, something that's impossible for him given his profession - hence, his relationship with a French Quarter escort who's so impossibly gorgeous and leggy, she could be a Victoria's Secret model. But she has a heart of gold, of course.
At the film's start, Statham's Arthur Bishop has pulled off his latest assignment and returned to his mid-century modern hideaway in the swamps; the house is among the names, details and plot points carried over from the original. Upon the murder of his mentor and close friend, Harry (Donald Sutherland in a graceful cameo), Arthur seeks answers, and revenge.
But he's also saddled with Harry's screw-up of a son, Steve (Ben Foster), who's fascinated by what he perceives as an exciting and glamorous lifestyle. Arthur reluctantly takes Steve under his wing, shows him everything he knows and even lets him try out an assignment on his own - which is hugely suspenseful and goes horribly wrong.
While we're making comparisons, Foster is also preferable to Jan-Michael Vincent in this part. He's got a volatility to his demeanor that makes him riveting and dangerous at once, whereas his predecessor played the role as more of a laid-back California dude. Again, a product of the times.
Tony Goldwyn co-stars as the head of the shadowy company that employs Arthur; the second you see him, based on his demeanor (and filmography), you know he couldn't possibly be a good guy, which drains "The Mechanic" of some of its mystery and tension. The question then becomes not whether Arthur will get his man, but when, and how clever the kill will be when he does.
"The Mechanic," a CBS films release, is rated R for strong brutal violence throughout, language, some sexual content and nudity. Running time: 92 minutes. Three stars out of four.