The Paragon of Masculinity: Jason Statham is The Mechanic
June 30, 2011
I am a very big fan of the action sub-genre known (to me, at least) as the “assassins slowly crumbling” film. There are a good number of them; the best of which is easily Jean-Pierre Mellville’s Le Samourai, though Michael Mann’s Collateral is an excellent recent example. They generally involve an assassin who is a consummate professional and at the very top of his field. Through the course of the film he gets involved in a situation that causes him to rethink his position in some way, oftentimes involving a moral crisis or maybe just a simple human connection. Whether they be a doom-laden thriller (Le Samourai, The American), a more straight-forward actioner (Leon, Collateral) or a light-hearted romp (Grosse Point Blank), the plot device that sparks their change usually triggers an existential crisis that’s been building for some time. The trade-off for being a cold, effective killer is the denial of personal connections and a life that we in society generally deem to be fulfilling. Though they make a lot of money they rarely spend it, preferring a low-key, basic existence. Being good at their trade is enough for them, or so they assume. Personal connections compromise their abilities to do their job, and when they finally achieve them they generally die – oftentimes while trying to do the ‘right’ thing. In many ways, this is due to the basic moral conventions of Hollywood, even if the film was made outside of the system or even the country. We must be able to empathize with the main character in some fashion, and whether he gives up his lifestyle or dies having learned a Great Life Lesson, standard Western morality always wins out. There are ways in which the genre can challenge these morals, but by and large achieving them is the engine for the film.
So now we have Jason Statham in The Mechanic. It’s fitting that Statham has remade an old Charles Bronson vehicle, for they occupy a similar space within the cinematic world. Always playing roughly the same character – one inevitably in line with the actor’s image – in relatively cheap action/thrillers that act as modern-day B-movies. Statham’s films can’t go up against a summer tentpole, but they do just fine in the off-months, and action fans that aren’t too fussy are grateful for the service. Personally, I never get excited to watch a Statham film, but I’m rarely displeased with the results; sometimes I even really enjoy them, as in the case of the well-executed Transporter series or the wildly offensive and unbelievably bonkers Crank films. I should say right off the bat that I didn’t hate The Mechanic. It is certainly lesser Statham, if such a thing can exist, but it wasn’t an awful way to spend 90 minutes. He’s got his thing, he does it without much ado, and that’s generally okay. The thing is, I should probably have strongly disliked The Mechanic, or even hated it. It is quite clearly homophobic and revolting in its fetishization of violence (it’s poster is a gun made out of little guns), and even worse than that, it doesn’t make much sense, and it’s maddeningly cowardly when it comes to its chosen sub-genre. I’d argue that the latter issue is less about incompetent filmmaking and more about maintaining a certain acceptable image for the rather low-standards that have been set for action movie fans.
There are spoilers ahead, so if you want to see the film without knowing everything that happens, click away now. Statham plays Arthur, an assassin whose boss/mentor is Henry, an older, wheelchair-bound warhorse played with mild amusement by Donald Sutherland. Arthur is contracted to kill Henry for his apparent betrayal of the larger company, which he reluctantly agrees to do. After what counts in Statham-land as a tearful goodbye, Henry is dispatched and in comes his angry, wayward son, Steve (Ben Foster, nicely combining his disaffected teenager routine with his recent turn towards cold, steely bastards). Out of guilt or perhaps duty (who knows with Statham), Arthur takes Steve under his wing to show him how to become an assassin, or a “mechanic”, as they’re known here. A couple of botched but ultimately successful hits somehow result in Arthur learning that he was tricked into killing Henry and in comes the mission of vengeance he so hypocritically preached against to Steve not 30 minutes earlier. After the smarmy businessman straight out of the 80s is hilariously gunned down, Steve realizes that Arthur killed his daddy and decides to kill him. He thinks he’s succeeded, but we know he hasn’t because 1.) You can’t kill Statham and 2.) We never actually see the body so you know how it turns out. Steve then falls into a trap set up by Arthur, dies, and Arthur moves on and we’re back to square one.
Before moving into the betrayal of the genre, I’d like to note the ridiculous contradictory nature of this particular Statham film in regards to homosexuality, because I believe that mentality informs the larger issue. It is now a long-running joke that Statham films are fairly homoerotic ventures, especially given that he takes of his shirt in every one of them – including a scene in a Transporter film where he actually covers himself in oil – and it takes all of 3 minutes and 18 seconds in The Mechanic for that ripped chest to make an appearance. Less than ten minutes later comes the gratuitous, doth protest too much sex scene with a naked model/prostitute. This is there because he’s not gay, you see. Just to drive how not-gay he is, he’s later tasked with killing another mechanic. In stark contrast to Arthur, this mechanic’s only weaknesses are that he’s gay and he likes Chihuahuas, presumably because he is gay. Steve is sent in to seduce him, which happens blindingly fast because, well, gays are weak-willed perverts who just can’t help themselves. It’s shameless catering to the perceived male action fan base, and dishearteningly, I don’t think it’s wildly off-target with the assumption of that degree of homophobia.
Even outside of that, there’s a larger issue at work. Going back to the model/prostitute scene, other films might depict paying money for sex as sad, lonely venture. In the case of The American, Clooney’s character sees the prostitute as his only connection to humanity and is willing to give up everything to hold onto it. Here, it is merely to demonstrate that Statham is a Man. And not just a Man because he has sex with hot women, but because he’s just so damn good at it. She makes mooneyes at him and is clearly in love; when he drops the money on the dresser after she tries to make him some food, she looks at it in such a way as to suggest he doesn’t have to pay for it. Beyond the prostitute, there’s the relationship with Steve. By taking on an apprentice out of respect and/or guilt, the assassin would normally find himself compromised. Any break in routine in these films leads to trouble, and though he finds it here to some degree, in the end he hasn’t lost his control of the situation. Arthur catches on to the fact that Steve knows he’s responsible for the death of his father, and he’s fully aware he’s going to try to kill him, but he makes no effort to stop him. Alain Delon charges into a piano bar with an empty gun knowing the cops are waiting for him in Le Samourai, and Tom Cruise makes several crucial mistakes regarding his taxi driver friend in Collateral. Their death drives have taken over, and as the existential despair has become too much to bear, they willingly accept their grim fate as the only possible outcome for them. Arthur’s guilt manifests itself in a knowing “I’m sorry about everything” line given before Steve leaves their truck with the intention of blowing it up. Arthur doesn’t stop him, and one imagines this is because he has either accepted his fate as what he deserves or he’s going to escape but he’ll let Steve think he’s dead to give him closure. In the end he seemingly chooses the latter (the more cowardly of the two options), but when Steve returns to Arthur’s house, he’s set up several explosives and left him a note saying, “If you’re reading this, you’re dead.” Steve gives off a little laugh and is promptly engulfed in a fireball.
The lonely assassin is in many ways a continuation of the strong, silent type from the John Wayne westerns of old. Le Samourai came out in the early 1960s, bringing with it a healthy dose of contemporary French existential thought. The average Action Star has always been somewhat of the Ultimate Man’s Man and, consequently, a vaguely misogynist, borderline fascist representation of the Paragon of Masculinity. Still, an action star, whether they are a soldier or a cop, would also be a good guy, on the side of American morals and traditional family values. The assassin is a different beast because he is alone, and his job is to kill people for money. Now in America we have a general understanding that killing people is okay as long as the people you kill are the bad guys, but even so we’re meant to understand that an assassin has no moral code at and will kill absolutely anyone with no questions asked. The Mechanic breaks with this model, making it very clear that although he’s not a government operative or he doesn’t seem to have a moral code, everyone he kills in the movie is definitely bad. His first victim is the leader of a drug cartel, another is an arms dealer who “sold to anyone”, and later on he’s tasked with killing a ketamine-addicted preacher/cult leader with a penchant for sex scandals (he’s also fat, which is the ultimate signifier of evil). This does away with the unfortunate nuisance that is the immorality of being a murderer-for-hire.
Of course, that immorality is key to the “assassins slowly crumbling” film. Assassins are the ultimate male hero because, on their way to becoming the very best at their job (another value of the “American Man”) they’ve eradicated that last vestige of femininity: feelings. The immorality of these protagonists comes with an ever-present internal anguish, and through the course of the film the archetypical masculine figure will be deconstructed until feelings – and the self-reflection that comes with them – are revealed. The myth of the masculine “man’s man” is that he is emotionless and calculating; he knows all the angles and never sweats because he’s one step ahead of everyone else. An assassin is the supreme version of this myth because, unlike the soldiers or the cops, he has no family and fights for nobody but himself. He’s a real Randian superman in a lot of ways. If post-modern cinema has been about pulling apart the archetypes and preconceptions of old, then The Mechanic is an effort to go back to a time of unthinking simplicity. By taking away the deconstruction aspects, The Mechanic ensures that the audience is never troubled with any difficult questions about the character, his options, and his actions. To the filmmakers, the audience’s ideal of masculinity should not be broken down and examined; it should be raised up and not questioned, and if a character arc is collateral damage, then so be it. In the end, the audience doesn’t want Statham’s Arthur to be a The Mechanic after all. They want him to be The Machine.