(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.
(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.
(Video on Demand, February 2013) As the frontier between small theatrical and big direct-to-video releases keeps blurring, it’s not much a surprise to find out that decent thrillers can pass almost unnoticed in theaters before making a bigger splash in as on-demand releases. So it is that we have Stolen, a meat-and-potato thriller directed by veteran Simon West (Con Air, Tomb Raider, Expendables 2, etc) featuring the ever-unhinged Nicholas Cage popping up without much theatrical fanfare in 144 theaters across North America before arriving on home video. While Stolen isn’t a great movie, it’s handled with some screenwriting finesse, directing energy and acting skill when compared to a lot of other theatrical releases (such as the similarly-themed Taken 2). There isn’t much to the “genius bank robber is forced back into action after his daughter is kidnapped by an ex-partner” plot, but West’s direction keeps things moving, the script has unexpected moments of cleverness, the New Orleans backdrop is colorful enough (especially when you compare it to other films such as Deja Vu, 12 Rounds or even Hard Target) and the film doesn’t waste a lot of time. Sure, it’s ludicrously-plotted, with enough contrivances, coincidences and conveniences to fill a duffel bag. The dialogue isn’t stellar. The characters are barely sketched. But it’s not difficult to watch, and there’s a rough narrative drive to it all. Nicolas Cage gets a few moments of typical freaking-out, and it’s always enjoyable to see a solid actor like Danny Huston get a few moments to himself. The point being: Stolen is better than Taken 2, and as good as a few films with much wider releases. It’s an acceptable way to spend a quiet evening, and sometimes that’s all that’s needed.
(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.