Friday, February 04, 2011

The New “Mechanic”: Fixing What Ain’t Broke

Trailer for 1972’s The Mechanic (aka Killer of Killers)

(Editor’s note: The following review of the freshly remade crime/action film The Mechanic comes from Wallace Stroby, author of the new novel Cold Shot to the Heart [St. Martin’s/Minotaur]).

I grew up on a steady diet of 1970s crime and action movies. Many a day of my preteen and teenage years was spent in a darkened movie theater, watching films like The Seven-Ups, Rolling Thunder, and Magnum Force. Those days remain some of the fondest memories of my youth. I went to a Catholic high school where football was almost a religion, but I couldn’t tell you a single thing about one of those games. On the other hand, I can sharply recall an afternoon in 1975 spent at a double feature of Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite and the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three at the Shrewsbury Cinema in Shrewsbury, New Jersey.

As befitting the era, I saw a lot of Charles Bronson movies, some excellent (Hard Times, Mr. Majestyk), some good (Death Wish, Telefon), and some awful (Death Wish 2). The Mechanic (1972, alternatively titled Killer of Killers) fell somewhere in the middle, a slick action movie about a hit man (Bronson) grooming a young protégé--played by Jan-Michael Vincent--to take his place. It was capably directed by Brit Michael Winner (who later reteamed with Bronson for Death Wish), and was much talked about at the time for its ironic and effective twist ending.

Although it wasn’t the best of the ’70s Bronsons, much of The Mechanic is still etched in my mind. It was the perfect role for the craggy, weathered actor, who at that point was the biggest box-office star in the world. His Arthur Bishop was a cool assassin with a fondness for classical music and fine living. But he also radiated an implacable, almost primitive menace. He could kill you with his gray-eyed squint alone.

Given my history, I was skeptical when I sat down to watch the 2011 retooling of The Mechanic, directed by Brit Simon West (Con Air), and starring newly minted action hero, and fellow Brit, Jason Statham. The big surprise--in addition to Statham being quite good, if humorless, as Bishop--is that the first 45 minutes of the remake are infinitely superior to the original. West keeps the story solidly centered on interpersonal relationships, chiefly between Bishop and his avuncular-but-wily employer, played by Donald Sutherland. The updates to Lewis John Carlino’s original script are smart and convincing. A scene in which Bishop gets a target to circumvent his own high-tech security, and then stages his murder to look like a random carjacking, is brilliant. In the Jan-Michael Vincent role, Ben Foster steers clear of the twitchy histrionics that made his
performance in 3:10 to Yuma so distracting. He’s believable as a tough kid with anger and substance-abuse issues, a better-drawn character than Vincent’s pretty-boy sadist.

But about an hour in, this new Mechanic takes an unfortunate detour into, if not Michael Bay Land, at least one of its neighboring islands. When the explosions start and the futuristic automatic weapons come out--wielded by an inexhaustible supply of faceless bad guys in suits--all nuance goes out the window, along with any semblance of logic. By the end of the film, the supposedly under-the-radar Bishop is engineering multi-car accidents, plowing into limousines with a stolen garbage truck, blowing up buses, and machine-gunning bad guys in the middle of a public street, with shell casings spewing everywhere, and the police nowhere to be found.

That the film features the exact same twist ending, almost beat for beat, as the original is more of a head scratcher. Were the producers/director/writers confident no one remembered the original? Was it a gesture of respect for Carlino’s script? (That’s a little harder to believe.) There must have been any number of alternative narrative paths to reach that same place. As it is, when Foster’s character climbs into Bishop’s restored Jaguar (a Ford Mustang Mach 1 in the original), it’s clear what’s coming.

Would my 12-year-old self have enjoyed the 2011 Mechanic as much as he did the original? Maybe. But I think even then, he would have known something was missing. That more is often less. And that Charles Bronson’s steely glance and world-weary authenticity might just have more impact than a hour’s worth of fireballs, gunfights, and careening public utility vehicles.

READ MORE:Double Barreled,” by J. Kingston Pierce (Killer Covers).


le0pard13 said...

For the most part, I'd agree with you about what works with the new THE MECHANIC, and what doesn't. However, the filmmakers (or studio heads, media consultants, or whatever) go out of their way to establish Statham's Bishop as principled assassin who only goes after 'bad' people. Bronson's version remains more ambiguous toward who he kills and whether they're 'good' or 'bad' isn't a factor to him. The new model is 180° from the Charles Bronson 70s anti-hero.

As well, for an action movie (cause it definitely isn't in the same vein of the original film) makes the cardinal sin of losing the audience's way in a lot of action sequences. Beside too many big explosions and emptying of gun clips, it choreography is too haphazard (something someone like Michael Mann would never do) in staging them.

le0pard13 said...

I'm too fast with the typing. I meant to include the issue (spoiler warning) with that finale. Yes, the filmmakers throw in a similar one to the original (especially for Ben Foster's character). But they definitely veer away from the more downer ending of the '72 film. Bishop skillfully and miraculously escapes the assassination attempt by his protégé?!? Of course he escapes unscathed. I mean he's a 2011 hero... and must survive for the sequel. Sorry, but give me the more brooding 70s film with Bronson any day of the week. Thanks.

wstroby said...

It's interesting, in that this trailer for the original must be a retitled re-release, as it cites DEATH WISH, which didn't come out until 3 years later. And the narration tried to frame Bronson's character as another vigilante hero, rather than a professional hit man.

paulsinn said...

For my money, I'll take Eddie the Saint anytime of the day.

Thomas Kaufman said...

I wasn't planning on seeing the remake, but after reading this review, I may take the plunge. A well-written review, Mr Stroby.

wstroby said...

paulsinn: Thanks for the plug, subtle as it is.

Tom: It ain't exactly "The King's Speech," and the second hour is pretty mindless, but the first 45 or so mins. are better than you would expect them to be.