(On Cable TV, January 2018) So, it’s January first and what better way to start the movie-seeing year than with the latest instalment of the reliably ludicrous Fast and the Furious franchise? The Fate of the Furious doubles down on the increasing madness of the series, which means that the film starts with a street race in which the protagonist’s vehicle catches fire well before the finishing line and ends with a face-off between fast cars and a nuclear submarine. Yes, it’s that kind of movie. Once again, we’re back in the world of high-end cyber-espionage, with street racers saving the world through various heroics. There are even plot twists, what with series protagonist Vin Diesel flirting with the dark side by dint of manipulation. The character motivations don’t always make sense, the action beats are far-fetched and the plot is an excuse to get from one set piece to another, but that’s the price to pay for seeing Jason Statham joining the good guys, spectacular action sequences and enough self-assured movie mayhem to remind us why this mix of comedy, action and outright absurdity works so well. The most interesting sequence comes midway through the movie, as the newest self-driving technologies and the ever-rising possibilities of hacking combine to make New York a playground for vehicular mayhem, all the way to making cars rains down from above. Great stuff, and a series highlight. Otherwise, what you get is what you’ve been getting since the series pivot Fast Five: attractive actors, beautiful cars, big dumb (but savvy) action, globe-spanning locations, a focus on family that now approaches self-parody and enough dangling threads that sequels aren’t just possible, but expected. (Although the most recent news out of the franchise are of feuds that don’t bode well for the entire cast returning.) I’ve been a fan of the franchise since the very first one (although the second film sorely tested my faith) and The Fate of the Furious hasn’t changed my mind. Bring on Fast Nine…
(On DVD, February 2017) So; what happens when you start watching a crime thriller and an existentialist drama breaks out? Watch Revolver to find out. The weight of expectations clearly runs against the film: This is a Guy Richie movie! Starring Jason Statham and Ray Liotta! Featuring high-powered criminals! How can it not be another Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrel, Snatch or Rock-and-rolla? Well, it turns out that under the trappings of a crime thriller, Revolver wants to be something else. It messes with Kabbalistic symbols, deconstructs the inner psyche of a criminal, plays with components of the self, and, quite visibly, loses track of what it meant to do. Seeing Luc Besson’s name on the script is a warning more than a feature. Richie’s typically dynamic direction here feels disjointed if not actively unbalanced—the unreality of the heavily processed opening sequences eventually lead to the depiction of a mental breakdown as seen from the inside. It’s not pretty, and Revolver is equally remarkable for the way it’s willing to deglamorize strong actors. Statham has unflattering hair and an even worse dramatic arc, while Mark Strong has to contend with equally terrible hair and a surprisingly wimpy character. Self-important and pretentious to a fault, Revolver is an experience more than a film, and the right response at the end is something along the lines of a wary “okay…” Even the “reworked” American version barely works on the surface level of a crime thriller—and it’s exhausting enough that it discourages any attempt to go beyond the surface. I used to think that Swept Away was the worst thing that Madonna ever did to Richie (well, except for the pain of divorce, etc.) but Revolver has to be a close second.
(On Cable TV, January 2016) Jason Statham starring in a William Goldman script? Well, yes: Apparently, veteran director Simon West dug up an old Goldman screenplay and polished it to Statham’s persona, although the result remains more Goldmanesque than playing to Statham’s usual action thrillers. Taking place in the seedier corners of Las Vegas, Wild Card revolves around a British-accented hard-boiled bodyguard with a gambling problem. As the movie begins, an old acquaintance asks for help in exerting her vengeance, a new client wants pointers on how to be tougher, and our protagonist starts thinking about the amount of money it would take to get out of the business. Add some mobsters, a cinematography that practically lives in the seventies, a restrained number of action scenes and you have a movie that actually provides Statham enough substance to show that he’s a better actor than most people are willing to consider. The compromise has a cost, though: The few fights may not make his fans happy, and it’s certainly nowhere near thoughtful enough to aspire to art-house respectability. So it is that Wild Card often feels as if it’s sitting halfway between an action thriller and a gambling drama. There are a few good moments: In West’s capable hands, the fights are fine, Stanley Tucci has a very likable quasi-cameo as a mobster and Michal Angarano isn’t too bad as a nebbish millionaire trying to toughen up. Wild Card almost harkens back to an older era of filmmaking, not quite as rigidly bound by formulas and willing to punctuate drama with action rather than the other way around. But while the result may be fitfully interesting, it’s not enough to be memorable: it plays like far too many Statham films, as merely serviceable filler.
(Video on Demand, October 2015) By now, the Bond spy film formula has been spoofed, lampooned and deconstructed so often (even within the Bond series) that Bond-parodies have become a sub-genre in themselves. Spy arrives in this crowded field with a few advantages: Melissa McCarthy may have a divisive comic persona, but she’s absolutely shameless in getting whatever laughs she can, and when you have the production budged to get both Jude Law and Jason Statham as comic foils, it’s already a step up from the usual B-grade effort. So it is that director Paul Feig tries his damnedest to deliver a polished Bond parody, and does score a good number of laughs along the way. His action scenes may not be as good as they could be (although there is a pretty good kitchen fight late in the film) but Spy does have a reasonable veneer of big-budget polish. McCarthy isn’t entirely annoying as a CIA desk agent compelled to become a field operative, but Jason Statham steals the show as an insane and ineffective parody of the kind of action hero he often plays. (Rose Byrne and Peter Serafinowicz also shine in smaller roles.) Otherwise, Spy gets a lot of mileage out of combining puerile humor with its spy subject matter, although the deconstruction/reconstruction mechanism is very familiar by now. It does feel a bit long (something that probably wasn’t helped by seeing the slightly-longer and more digressive “unrated version”) but there is a decent amount of plot to go with the improvised jokes. While Spy doesn’t break as much tradition as it thinks it does, it remains a decent comedy, a fair showcase for McCarthy and a step up for Feig, whose direction seems to improve slightly with every film.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) Another six months, another Jason Statham movie. Here he is again in the utterly-generically-named Homefront, playing a cop with rough methods, this time with the slight twist that he’s supposed to be retired and living easy somewhere in the Louisiana countryside. It doesn’t work out that way, of course: a bullying incident involving his daughter escalates and brings him to the attention of the local meth lord, who in turn goes and involves an even bigger mob boss with scores to settles. It leads predictably into the kind of mayhem we expect from Statham movies. So what is different from this one? Not much, but Homefront has qualities to appreciate: The Louisiana scenery is nice. Rachelle Lefebvre gets another small but likable role as a sympathetic schoolteacher. Statham is up to his usual standards as a dad trying to protect his daughter from harm. But it’s James Franco who gets the most distinctive role, bringing his usual lack of intensity to a reluctant meth kingpin antagonist. Wynona Rider also gets a small role as a waitress with ambitions. Still, this is another one of Statham’s archetypical roles, and this continuation of his usual screen persona is successful in that it neither challenges nor undermines his position as an action star. The workmanlike direction is good enough without being in any way impressive, which is roughly what’s to expect from Statham vehicles. Homefront doesn’t amount to much of a film, but it’s entertaining enough in its own generic way. Of course, it’s going to be hard to remember it in a few days, let alone after it blurs into a string of so many similar Statham films.
(On Cable TV, June 2014) At a point when nearly everyone knows what “a Jason Statham movie” is supposed to be, here comes Redemption to show something just slightly different enough to be interesting, although not necessarily likable. It starts like many other Statham films, with the actor playing a down-on-his-luck ex-military protagonist scrambling to survive. But then an exceptionally lucky break allows the lead character to stop running and start improving his situation. Alas, this doesn’t translate in sweetness and light: our hero takes up a job as an enforcer and starts filling up his fridge with bundles of cash. Whatever emotion he’s got left are spent avenging a murdered friend and seducing a preposterously attractive nun. That plot summary fits with Statham’s righteous-avenger persona, but it’s the ending that sets Redemption apart, one where the character voluntarily accepts the end of his summer in the sun, and his fatalistic return to obscurity. Various odds and ends make the rest of the film more uncomfortable than it needed to be: the seducing-nun subplot is a lot less fun than you’d expect (it smacks of an exploitation device in a film that tries to be something more serious), there’s an off-putting human-trafficking sequence that causes more cringes than illumination, and the ending seems to reach for pathos that the rest of the film hasn’t justified. Perhaps worst of all is how slow and occasionally dull Redemption can be. Even as writer/director Steven Knight’s conscious attempt to tackle deeper themes within a framework immediately familiar to Statham and his fans, it doesn’t quite have the grace or the compelling hooks required to keep sustained interest throughout. Redemption is somewhat audacious, sure, even beautifully shot at times and symbolically deeper than anything we’d expect (all the while showing why Statham is both a limited and charismatic actor at once) but it doesn’t add up to something more than “interesting”.
(On Cable TV, November 2013) Jason Statham can act quite a bit better than his usual screen personae allows, and while I do like his stock character a lot, it’s a shame that we don’t see him attempt more ambitious movies than cookie-cutter efforts such as Parker. It’s not that Parker is badly made: Director Taylor Hackford knows what he’s doing and gives a nice gloss to his visuals –especially once the action moves to Miami Beach. Statham is his usual gruff-but-charming self, while Jennifer Lopez gets a few comic moment as a desperate real estate agent. But Parker really can’t rise above its generic nature: Not only has the “left for dead good-guy criminal seeks revenge” shtick been done to death, it has often been executed in far more economical fashion: For a film with such as straightforward plot, Parker overstays its welcome at nearly two hours –Lopez, nominally billed as one of the two lead characters, doesn’t show up until mid-movie. It’s a bit of a shame that this first titled adaptation of Donald E. Westlake’s Parker novels is so generic: I recall Mel Gibson’s 1999 vehicle Payback with a lot more fondness. (It’s not the only late-nineties to be favorably compared to Parker – it’s hard to see Lopez in this film without thinking about Out of Sight.) The dead-end romantic subplot doesn’t help, and there’s a sense that much has been wasted in this hum-drum effort. Ironically, the best reason to see Parker remains Statham himself –even in the most generic of vehicles, he remains curiously compelling.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) I was left unimpressed by The Expendables’ mixture of self-satisfied machismo, gory violence and incoherent direction, so to say that this sequel is better than the first one only requires slight improvements. By far the best creative decision taken this time around is to give directing duties away from Sylvester Stallone and to veteran filmmaker Simon West –an inconsistent director, but one who at least knows what he’s doing. The macho bravado and CGI gore is still there, but at least the film doesn’t struggle to make itself understood once the relatively coherent action sequences are put together. The tone is much improved: Rather than trying to be a humorless pastiche of 80s action films, The Expendables 2 regularly acknowledges its own absurdity, whether in the form of stunned one-liners, or avowed deus-ex-cameo plot developments that allow icons such as Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis to come in a save the day even at the expense of basic suspension of disbelief. As with the first film, it’s the casting that provides much of the entertainment: Sylvester Stallone is still obnoxious in a self-indulgent lead role, but Jason Statham is reliably good, Jean-Claude van Damme relishes his role as an eponymous Vilain, Dolph Lundgren gets a bit more of that “mad chemist” character, while relative newcomer Nan Yu makes a bit of impression as a welcome female presence in the middle of so much testosterone. As far as action is concerned, the beginning of The Expendables 2 is generally getter than its second half for reasons linked to the film’s intention: R-rated Eighties action film were heavy on violence (ie; personalized deaths, usually at gunpoint) while subsequent Nineties PG-13 action films relied more on, well, bloodless action: chases and explosions. This sequel has more action at the beginning, and far more violence at the end, especially when is starts shooting up an airport terminal where no innocent travellers are to be found. Dialogue and plot don’t deserve much of a mention, except to note their role in setting up the action sequences or the terrible self-referential humor. While the film is definitively an improvement over the original, the final result isn’t much more than a routine shoot-‘em up: there is little in The Expendables 2 to spark the imagination or even to discuss once the credits roll. It goes without saying that the entire thing is still an exercise is self-absorbed nostalgia. There is no need for a sequel, even though one is nearly certain given the nature of the franchise.
(On Cable TV, December 2012) Since his starring role in The Transporter (2002) Jason Statham has been successful at establishing himself as one of the few reliable action movie stars of the decade, with the unfortunate result that “Statham movies” often feel generic. Safe certainly won’t rank among Statham’s most distinctive efforts: A routine crime thriller set in the streets of New York with Statham mowing down opposing mobs while protecting a girl savant, it’s a satisfying but unmemorable effort that won’t do much to alter everyone’s perceptions of the actor. Statham gruffs his way through the plot, back-story gradually emerging to prove that he’s not the homeless guy we’ve been shown from the get-go. The math-genius girl plot thread is handled with a refreshing lack of sentimentality, but her place in the overall plot is tangential at best. The rest is more of that familiar triads-vs-mafiya-vs-corrupt-cops-vs-protagonist stuff, albeit handled with an absurd body count. Much of the fights and action sequences in the latter half of the film are fairly dull, which is a shame given that the first half contains two dynamic quasi-subjective extended shots in which we’re put in the middle of the action. Also noteworthy is the buildup to a major final fight between two characters, unexpectedly averted at the last moment. Statham is up to his usual standards… which should explain why his reputation will only benefit from this ordinary film. Otherwise, Safe is almost exactly the kind of film conceived to fill up an undemanding evening: it’s almost exactly what it’s intended to be, and competently made most of the time.
(On Cable TV, September 2012) I’m constantly amazed at the number of decent films that fly under my radar. I had years where I saw more than 70 movies in theaters, and will probably see that many even this year when I’m deliberately avoiding theaters to stay at home watching on-demand movies; I keep up with the trade news and have a fairly reliable mental database of whose in what; I like Jason Statham a lot… why is it that I completely missed seeing Chaos when it came out in 2005? I can’t explain it… but I can enjoy it, because even on the small screen, Chaos is a decent middle-of-the-road crime thriller. Featuring Jason Statham, Ryan Philippe and (briefly) Wesley Snipes in one of his last roles before his 2006-2009 eclipse, Chaos has the advantage of a strong opening and a decent middle section before turning repetitive and overlong in its final act. There’s playfulness in the way the opening crams a film’s worth of plot in a credit sequence, and then in the way is plays along with traditional genre elements during its first half. Chaos’ biggest problem is that it doesn’t quite know how to deliver a third act –although, fortunately, it manages a good final scene as a kicker. Statham is as reliable as always in a solid policeman role, whereas Philippe plays a familiar but ill-fitting young-wunderkind protagonist. (Snipes, meanwhile, shown up for a while and disappears except when the film needs a scare or two.) Still, there’s a lot to like about some of the film’s thematic content: As a big fan of James Gleick’s Chaos, I was overjoyed to see the non-fiction science book get a prominent role in a crime thriller. Still, I think that Chaos will work better for viewers who are receptive to crime-thriller genre elements and the ways they can be blended, recombined and subverted. It may not be a film for the ages, but it’s good enough at what it does, and it confirms that few actors can be as effective action heroes as Statham.
(On Cable TV, sometime around May 2012) It’s surprising to see how quickly a film can affirm its dull unspectacular barely-exciting nature. So it is that Killer Elite takes us back to 1970s England in order to present a semi-thrilling story something supposedly based on true events. But never mind that last part; the only thing inspired by true event seems to be the serious rainy atmosphere in which the entire film is bathed. While Robert De Niro, Jason Statham and Clive Owen are a spectacular union of tough-guy heroes, Killer Elite doesn’t seem interested in most of them: De Niro is barely on-screen for fifteen minutes, Owen is hampered in a bad-guy role while Statham plays nothing more (or less) than his usual screen persona. Still, the script doesn’t give any of them much to do. The directing is competent but unspectacular, and that goes for Killer Elite in general. The script gets needlessly complicated by the end, and it’s really the actors who carry the film to the finish line. I had to go back and review my year-end notes in order to realize that I hadn’t actually reviewed Killer Elite upon initially viewing it, and I’ll let that speak for itself.
(On DVD, December 2011) If ever you find yourself wondering what sets Jason Statham apart from other actors specializing in action movies, look no further than the extra interest and energy he brings to this otherwise fairly routine police thriller. A pure product of the British film industry, Blitz it technically slick and actually benefits from its London location: Compared to other comparable LA-based crime thrillers, it’s a welcome change of pace to see British policemen at work in a different environment. As far as the plot is concerned, though, it’s the usual psycho-cop-killer routine, with an implausibly super-powered antagonist and policemen unable to counter him. Added spice comes from the subplots; I assume that they reflect material from the eponymous Ken Bruen book on which the film is based. The problem is that subplots that fit within a series book aren’t necessarily fit for transposition within a standalone film. The best/worst example of this concerns a subplot featuring an arresting performance by Zawe Ashton: It’s a great piece of drama that would be integral to a TV series, but it doesn’t fit within the thriller framework of the film itself and, as such, doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. If you don’t know that Blitz is adapted from an ongoing series, you may have trouble figuring out the extent of the characters’ developing relationships. The fall-back position is the vicious police drama as headlined by Statham; never mind the fascistic position taken by the film’s “cop-killer versus killer-cop” attitude (everything can be blamed back to political correctness, as is usually the tendency with films of this sort)… it just seems like the kind of easy ending tacked-on to make everyone feel better. As a film, Blitz isn’t too bad. But it has a few rough edges that Statham’s typical performance can’t completely save.
(In theatres, January 2011) Jason Statham may not be a very versatile actor, but he is very good at the one kind of role that suits him best, and he’s shown himself more than able to keep on doing what people ask of him. This means that there is such a thing as “a Jason Statham film” even as the concept of the action hero actor has fallen off the wayside lately. His latest, The Mechanic, is solid middle-of-the-road material for him. Playing a seasoned assassin taking on an apprentice, Statham stretches no thespian muscle yet still manages to deliver the goods. As the title of the film suggests, he’s icy precision in a film that seems happy to recycle familiar action-movie clichés with an unhealthy side-order of coincidence and bland cinematography. To its credit, it doesn’t take on pretentious airs and understands the kind of thrills that the audience expects from “that kind of (Statham) movie”: This is strictly B-grade filmmaking, competent but not exhilarating. Its bland overexposed cinematography does have a bit of an old-fashioned atmosphere, almost as if this remake was trying to deliver a film-long visual homage to its 1972 original. Director Simon West has been inconsistent through the years, but here he doesn’t seem terribly interested in delivering anything more than the usual –although a hit in a downtown Chicago hotel does have its moments. (Plus, there’s the “garbage shredder scene” to deliver at least one solidly unpleasant jolt.) Otherwise, The Mechanic is strictly routine, down to the accidental airport meeting that precipitates the conclusion and the expected plot beats tied up during the epilogue. As an action movie, it’s competent without being exceptional –exactly the kind of film that appears, doesn’t disappoint, and then sinks away forever into bargain bins.
(On DVD, August 2010) It’s said that films should be judged on the basis of their ambitions, and the least one can say about writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables is that it really wants to be a gift to 1980s action movie fans. The ensemble cast is among the most extraordinary ever assembled for an action film, in between Stallone, Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li and others, with great cameos by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unfortunately, the cast (Statham in particular) is about the only thing going for this film, which is so successful in recreating the eighties that it has forgotten that most action films of the era were deathly dull. Reviving Regan-administration Latin-American politics, the film is mired in a dull banana-republic setting where only Americans can kill the right people to restore peace and deniable capitalistic hegemony. But even worse is Stallone’s action direction, which cuts away every half-second in an effort to hide that the actions scenes don’t have a lot of interest. The explosions are huge, but the rest is just confused: in-between the excessive self-satisfied machismo of the film, it’s not hard to grow resentful at the stunning waste of opportunities that is The Expendables. A perfect example is a dock strafing sequence that could have been great had it actually meant something: instead, it just feels like the gratuitous hissy fit of a pair of psychopaths. But the nadir of the film has to be found in its script, especially whenever it tackles perfunctory romance: Sixty-something Stallone may helm the film, but it’s no excuse to slobber over a girlfriend half his age. Another dramatic monologue delivered by Rourke stops the film dead in its tracks and sticks out as the endless scene that doesn’t belong. Too bad that the script doesn’t know what to do with what it has: despite the obvious nods and little gifts to macho cinema, The Expendables quickly indulges in the limits of the form. Guys; don’t argue with your girlfriend if she wants both of you to see something else.
(In theaters, August 2008) No one will be surprised to learn that this remake of a classic B-grade picture has twice the mayhem and none of the (thin) social commentary of the original. After all, it’s become somewhat of a signature move for modern remakes to go for the flash and forget the substance of what worked in the original. The inevitable result of such cutting, of course, is a lifeless piece of action cinema that barely manages to engage its audience. So it is with Death Race, which takes a nasty social premise and hammers it in a prison environment TV show where there’s no chance that any real issues can be discussed. Jason Statham is up to his usual gruff standards as a good tough guy manipulated in causing considerable violence, but the rest of the picture around him is as monotone as the processed industrial look given to the picture. Joan Allen is wasted as the mastermind behind the race, but then again most of the talent in this picture is similarly wasted. Director Paul W.S. Anderson is a certifiable idiot, but at least he manages to find half a dozen good sequences and images out of this whole over-edited mess. Among the film’s least admirable misogynistic traits is the use of young women as race navigators, only to conveniently forget them during the various crashes and deaths that follow –at one gruesome exception. You don’t need to know much more about this strictly routine film: it’s going to be straight to the DVD bargain bin for this title, and then on to “I didn’t even know they’d remade Death Race” obscurity.