One consequence of the abundance of elite assassins in movies is that they inevitably must turn on each other. Apparently there aren’t enough of us non-assassins who need to be whacked to keep the pros in gravy. Or at least, there aren’t enough of us so worth killing that anyone is willing to pay for it. I suppose that’s good news. It’s a pretty safe bet that in any movie about an assassin, he or she will eventually become the target of another assassin, usually hired by the very same low-down, double-crossing people who employ the first assassin, which is what happens in The Mechanic – which is to say that if you’ve seen one movie about an elite hitman, you’ve seen The Mechanic. (You might also have seen the 1972 Charles Bronson movie on which The Mechanic is based.)
Statham is Arthur Bishop, an assassin who specializes in murders-for-hire that don’t look like murders. Drownings, heart attacks and apparently random street crimes are among his specialties. He’s knowledgeable, efficient and discreet, and he is rewarded handsomely for his skill and lack of qualms. But in case the audience has any qualms about the murder-for-hire biz, the victims of Arthur’s expertise are all cartoonishly and vaguely bad people who might deserve to be professionally and efficiently dispatched.
Arthur fancies himself an aesthete, living in a spectacular house in a Louisiana swamp, listening to his hi-fi and rebuilding a vintage car. (“Mechanic” is a euphemism for assassin, but Arthur’s also an actual mechanic, which might have seemed more interesting on paper than it is on film. The extent of his automotive activity is to give a socket wrench a couple of twists.) Arthur’s detachment extends to his sex life: He prefers the uncomplicated company of prostitutes, although he pays them well.
Arthur’s tranquil life gets complicated when he gets an assignment that he doesn’t want: killing a personal friend (he doesn’t have many of them). Then there’s another complication: The dead man’s son Steve (Ben Foster), not knowing who killed his father, wants to learn Arthur’s trade. The kid doesn’t have much going for him, so Arthur takes him under his burly wing.
Much of The Mechanic involves Arthur teaching Steve the ropes, in a series of assassinations that don’t go as smoothly as planned. Murders that go off without a hitch are kind of boring, I guess. The ones that go badly end up in fisticuffs and shoot-outs and spearings, with people rappelling down skyscrapers and getting thrown through windows and other exciting stuff. Steve, who lacks Arthur’s sangfroid and nose for trouble, tends to get into difficulty rather more than is healthy for an assassin who plans to make a career of it. Steve, with his emotional neediness and Daddy issues, is also more interesting and sympathetic than Arthur.
Under the direction of Simon West (Con Air), The Mechanic is a pretty good-looking movie, with briskly paced and sporadically imaginative action. (In one scene, Arthur and another hitman go at it on an airport shuttle bus, turning various bits of quotidian transport into deadly weapons.) That’s not really enough to make this movie worth watching. One problem is Arthur. He is not interesting or likable. You wouldn’t want to spend time with the guy. While the movie tries to make an issue of sorts out of the ethics of assassination (hey, every profession has its professional ethics), if Arthur is capable of deep thought about such things, he doesn’t let on. Statham is a fine physical specimen, but aside from a lot of intense glowering, he doesn’t betray any emotion. He’s like a pilot light that never gets lit; nothing gets to Arthur, and so there’s really nothing to Arthur. Foster is better as the callow, reckless and emotionally ragged Steve, and Donald Sutherland is quite good in a small role. Sutherland keeps getting cast in little roles in unmemorable (or terrible or occasionally good) movies; would somebody please give this guy something worthwhile to do?
If we wait long enough, all the movie assassins will eventually kill each other, until there is only one left. Maybe Donald Sutherland will play him.
Syd’s pick: Take a look at Confessions of a Dangerous Mind from the hitman back catalogue
Speaking of George Clooney and hitman movies, Clooney’s directorial debut was Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the alleged autobiography of game-show maestro Chuck Barris (The Dating Game, The Gong Show), who claimed that while he was a mild-mannered TV producer by day, by night he was a successful freelance assassin for the CIA. (He subsequently recanted his confession, then recanted his recantation.) Whether Barris’ story is true or not, Clooney allows this meandering tale to unfold as if it could be true.
Barris’ (and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s) take on Cold War espionage is more than a bit over-the-top – though no more so than might be expected coming from an unreliable narrator like Barris, who, as the film opens, is stark naked, holed up in a festering no-star hotel, recounting the events that led to his coming unglued and unclothed.
As Barris, Sam Rockwell takes this gig seriously (you wouldn’t want to antagonize an ex-hitman, would you?), and gives the movie psychological heft while conveying the sense that any story of Barris’ life – the one that includes a wacky spy-versus-spy plot, or the one in which a nerdy deviant becomes a wildly successful game show impresario – is equally absurd. Clooney directs with a cool but goofy irony, balancing the film’s more oddball, mannered tendencies with absurdist humor.
@ Syd M