Jason Statham’s fans will defend his glut of mediocre action movies by arguing that he always brings a sly sophistication—a certain Statham-ness, you might say—to even the most generic B-movie pulp. His graceful moves (whether strolling through a room in a tux or kicking and punching everyone in sight) and indomitable charisma elevate everything around him, we’ll insist. Put him in something like The Bank Job, the superb 2008 Roger Donaldson thriller, and you’ll get a sense of how good he really can be. But after too many The Mechanics and Safes, even his most ardent supporters have to wonder if the man’s stalled career has less to do with bad luck or simply an inability to find worthy material. In the end, Statham-ness can only take you so far.
Redemption would seem to be a step in the right direction. The feature directorial debut of Steven Knight, the accomplished writer of Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, this character-driven drama gives Statham one of his weightier roles. But despite some enjoyably idiosyncratic edges, Redemption is mostly conventional in its hardboiled depiction of a soulful loner trying to turn his life around. Statham clearly doesn’t just want to be a guy who cracks skulls, but his restrained, grizzled performance isn’t enough on its own to justify this moody misfire.
Statham plays Joey Jones, a former U.K. soldier back from the Middle East after several tours. Haunted by what he’s seen in combat—which we see in teasing glimpses through opaque flashbacks—Joey has returned to London but is living on the streets, trying to avoid court martial for unspecified reasons and ashamed to show his face around his young daughter and ex-wife.
One night while being chased by local criminals, he finds himself hiding out in the apartment of a rich man who’s away in New York for the next several months. Joey decides to take advantage of the opportunity, wearing the man’s expensive clothes and using his bankcard to invent a new life for himself.
As you can glean from its title, Redemption is about second chances, and in the case of Joey that path isn’t very smooth. (Incidentally, in the U.K., the movie has been titled Hummingbird, an oblique reference to a mystery in his military past that still eats at him.) Knight’s film, like Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises before it, looks at people on life’s margins with grit and compassion, but Redemption rarely manages to elevate its lugubrious story above neo-noir clichés.
Joey decides that he doesn’t want to simply live off the wealth of his unwitting out-of-town benefactor, electing to get a job with a Chinatown underworld figure (Benedict Wong) who quickly realizes Joey’s potential to be a first-rate enforcer. At the same time, Joey tries to give back to Cristina (Agata Buzek), a soup kitchen nun who took pity on him while he was homeless. Rather obviously, Redemption sets up these two elements as warring forces inside Joey: Will he embrace a life of crime or a life of righteousness? To Knight’s credit, he also concocts an unexpected budding romance between Joey and Cristina that’s something of a specialty of his, showing how two seemingly mismatched people can find common emotional ground.
But that’s not enough intrigue to power a movie burdened by shopworn narrative tricks. Joey’s troubled past turns out to be less than meets the eye, despite the amount of gravitas given to it, and his thirst for revenge on the thugs who killed a fellow homeless person lacks the necessary resonance. Statham exudes the world-weariness required of the character, and his preternatural cool imbues Redemption with melancholy. But whether it’s Joey’s unlikely stumbling into this new identity or the revealing of Cristina’s own dark history, the film never transcends a noticeable ludicrousness, its movie-movie unreality clashing with its desire to say something meaningful about war and regret. Give Statham credit for stretching—just not too much.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Steven Knight
Writer: Steven Knight
Starring: Jason Statham, Agata Buzek, Vicky McClure, Benedict Wong
Release Date: June 28, 2013