Hitman movies are a dime a dozen, but 'The Mechanic' must have cost a nickel. Too smart by half, Simon West's remake of the 1972 movie of the same name emphasizes cool shoot-outs over character development and set pieces over substance. Needless to say, that approach will inevitably appeal to some viewers, but even with Ben Foster doing the acting for both himself and co-star Jason Statham, 'The Mechanic' is too torn between a sense of dramatic integrity and a desire to fulfill audiences' bloodlust to fully satisfy in either capacity.
Statham plays Arthur Bishop, an experienced, ice-cold assassin whose trademark is invisibility. When Bishop is given the task of killing his longtime mentor and only friend, Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland), he completes the job with effortless efficiency. Not long after, Harry's son Steve (Foster) shows up looking for someone to blame, and Bishop hides the truth, taking the young man under his wing as his protégé.
As the duo takes on increasingly ambitious jobs, Steve seems more interested in testing the limits of brutality than in executing targets with the same cool detachment as Bishop. But as Steve grows closer and closer to discovering the truth about his mentor, Bishop is forced to decide whether he wants to come clean, or take care of Steve in the same way he did his father.
To say that Jason Statham has played this character before would be an understatement, but the movie seems so disinterested in giving him anything compelling to do that it's almost not his fault. From first frame almost to last, 'The Mechanic' follows the same boilerplate story as countless other movies about assassins coming to terms with the immorality of their murders: Statham is "the best" – an assassin who can hide in a pool until his target takes a swim, kill the man underwater, and then make a clean getaway without anyone knowing he'd ever been there. The logistics of pulling off a scenario like that might actually be interesting, but the film is more interested in showing how his impossibly well-decorated architectural marvel of a house reflects the clarity of his purpose, and naturally, the emptiness of his soul.
Where Statham is all frigid detachment, Foster is unfettered, febrile energy, and as suggested above, he's doing work that the film barely needs and certainly doesn't deserve. Steve is troubled, to say the least, and seems to punish himself at least as much as his target whenever he takes a new job, but underneath Foster's tightly-coiled physicality, there isn't just villainous cruelty, but real, resonant pain; in spite of his sociopathic behavior, he becomes the character with whom we sympathize. What's unfortunate, however, is the film's need to create adversaries that are more foul and unforgiveable than Statham's character; and after the two of them square off against a pedophile hit man, a corrupt televangelist and a remorseless, string-pulling company man, Steve is more or less forced to become the next foe in film's hierarchy of "guys who are worse than Bishop."
It's easy to look at the showdowns in the film and see only action set pieces, but in at least one case, the "victim" was merely another assassin whose "villainy" took the form of homosexuality; there's lip service paid to the fact that he "likes boys," implying trysts with people who are under age, but anyone who could mistake Foster (who's 30) for younger than 18 needs cataract surgery, and it's Steve who's seducing the target rather than the other way around. For any thinking person, this sort of gonzo moral compass creates a really troubling payoff for the film as a whole: is it fair for the son of a murdered man to try and avenge his father? I'd say yes, but the film is less sure, and consequently abandons or ignores the deeper ramifications of the conflict between Steve and Bishop (not to mention Bishop's emotional re-awakening throughout the rest of the story) in order to give us an explosive but otherwise empty finale.
That said, it isn't particularly difficult to ignore these objections, especially if your own brand of wish-fulfillment comes in the form of cool shootouts, vintage cars, and a lifestyle where prostitutes look like supermodels and not-so-secretly want to do their jobs for free ... just because you're such a badass. In fact, the word best used to describe the film is "silly," because that's exactly what it is – gun porn and instant gratification, with no ambitions serious enough to solicit closer inspection of its values or ideas.
But the frustrating thing is that 'The Mechanic' really only gets genuinely interesting when things start to go wrong for its characters, so making the choice for everything to work out right at the end undermines even its potential entertainment value. As such, 'The Mechanic' is passable January fare at best, but if the filmmakers were really trying to give the original flick a contemporary tune-up, the best they did was to craft a thrill ride, running on an empty tank.