The Earnest Power of Jason Statham, One of Our Great Action Stars

Movies Features Jason Statham
The Earnest Power of Jason Statham, One of Our Great Action Stars

In Guy Ritchie’s thunderous new crime-noir Wrath of Man, Jason Statham delivers another masterclass in brute-force macho, albeit one that trades out his zealous madcap for a more foreboding kind of fury. As the mysterious H, a recent hire at an armored car depot, the actor exudes grim determination and coiled menace long before Ritchie shows us the character’s true face (which, without spoilers, is contorted in rage and dead-set on revenge). It’s one of Statham’s most bruising performances yet in what’s surely Ritchie’s meanest movie to date—the actor’s shaved head and perennial stubble bathed in such luxuriant gloom, literal and figurative, that it makes sense when one character refers to him as “a dark spirit.”

Indeed, as Wrath of Man broadens its scope, emerging more brutal and despairing by the minute, one begins to question whether H could actually be hell-sent. Watching him pump bullet after bullet into terrified adversaries with an automaton’s precision, it’s certainly terrifying to look into Statham’s eyes and find them coldly blazing, with nary a trace of the swaggering smarm that defined his early roles in Ritchie’s breakout films Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (also Statham’s acting debut) and Snatch (where global audiences first encountered the actor’s tough, sneering style). Statham’s character in Wrath of Man skews several degrees more sinister. “I’m starting to worry he’s a psychopath,” laments office manager Terry (Eddie Marsan) after H executes an entire team of would-be robbers.

Luckily, audiences could never say the same writ large for Statham, whose careful balance of ferocity and flair has turned him into an action hero built to last. Merging the unflappable masculine cool of screen archetypes like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman with a distinctly ‘80s muscularity and more postmodern willingness to wink at his own legend, he’s emerged across the past 23 years as a fixture of global action cinema, enduring as if carved from granite.

Key to Statham’s appeal is his profound authenticity, the as-of-yet unbroken promise to both his directors and his audience that what you see is what you get. That’s in no way intended as faint praise: Maintaining Statham’s air of devil-may-care viability and deceptive pathos takes hard work and discipline, and he’s remained high on any respectable list of Hollywood’s most in-demand action stars through establishing a definite (if not restrictive) groove for himself. There’s a blank-slate quality to Statham, stripped to its most elemental form in Wrath of Man, that has allowed him to channel everyone from Charles Bronson to Jet Li without betraying his own brash, bare-knuckle sensibility.

South Londoner Statham had careers as both a competitive diver and a male model before he became an actor, which might account for the remarkable poise he brings to both heart-in-mouth stunts and more brooding dramatic moments. It’s not that difficult to imagine a guy with his suavity and acrobatic grace thriving in either occupation, though Statham’s made it even easier on us.

Capitalizing on his comfort in the deep, the Transporter franchise features multiple extended underwater sequences while in The Meg, his freestyle is on full display as he cuts through water like a knife or treads it while aiming a harpoon at a marauding super-shark. But he’s been most successful in showcasing his diving abilities in the deliriously steroidal Mechanic: Resurrection, where he both executes a truly flawless cliff dive and leaps from a gondola, through the air, to catch the back of a passing hang glider. Such is Statham’s authority as an action star that the laws of physics seem to rewrite themselves around him.

As for the modeling, consider Statham’s stylish turns in heist thrillers like The Bank Job, where his bulging biceps are offset by a sterling charisma that extends to his classy (but rarely elitist) wardrobe. “We chose Jason because we wanted our model to look like a normal guy,” explained Lilly Anderson, a French Connection spokesperson. “His look is just right for now—very masculine and not too male-modelly.”

There’s something to that, even now, as Statham looms large as one of the biggest action stars on the planet. Though he’s become a style icon on his own terms, Statham’s look is rough-cut, relaxed and decidedly working class. He’s no Hollywood pretty boy—though he looks exceptionally good in a suit or behind the wheel of a luxury car—and there’s an elegant simplicity to his usual wardrobe of tactical turtlenecks and designer shades. Even in cameo appearances, Statham exudes a brand of instantly palpable cool. Take the opening of Michael Mann’s Collateral, in which he lands in LAX and hands off a briefcase to Tom Cruise’s ice-cold contract killer, disappearing back into the crowd (and out of the movie, much to the shock of any writer revisiting Collateral amid a larger assessment of Jason Statham’s body of work). In and out, he’s a born professional.

You don’t become one of the most enduring action heroes of your generation without exhibiting, shall we say, a very particular set of skills. And Statham is one of the few actors still standing in Hollywood whose oozing bravado is backed up by a battle-tested, can-do physicality. Lithe and lean in more down-and-dirty pictures, Statham cuts through action sequences with a similar efficiency: His fists ferocious, his mind whirling, his body a speeding bullet. In The Mechanic, Statham’s hitman takes on a bad guy while riding an airport bus, using every weapon at his disposal to rain down blows on the opponent until he happens upon a fire extinguisher pin and rams it through the guy’s cheek.

The standout brawl in one of his breakthrough action vehicles, Corey Yuen’s The Transporter, finds Statham greasing his suitably ripped torso with engine oil so he can glide freely around a garage, fashioning cleats from bike pedals as foolish enemies slip and slide into his fierce uppercuts. It’s a gloriously unhinged throwdown that, in directly referencing a similar scene in Jet Li’s Once Upon a Time in China III, drew an early line between Statham and the martial arts legend.

Statham—who considers Bruce Lee to be the greatest action star ever—is a major draw for audiences in Hong Kong, where The Meg was recently a record-breaking smash hit and the juggernaut Fast & Furious franchise has continued to dominate the box office. He’s shared the screen with Asian action icon Li, on a few occasions; the finale of 2007’s War finds them locked in mortal combat, armed with sledgehammers and shovels. Statham’s mixture of savagery and slapstick owes much to his career of working with Asian action choreographers, dating back to The Transporter; plenty of critics have suggested the secret to Statham’s crossover appeal lies in his ability to evoke the bone-crushing yet entertainingly screwball action-comedy of Chan’s biggest hits, like Police Story and Drunken Master.

But even amid the high-octane absurdities of Statham’s sillier pictures, like The Meg (he goes fist-to-fin with a giant shark and wins) and The Expendables 2 (he stabs a guy after saying “By the powers vested in me, I now pronounce you man and knife”), Statham also grounds the proceedings in a gruff, hardheaded realism. What is it about Statham that can lend even the most ridiculously heightened action sequence an undeniable ring of truth?

Perhaps it’s that his taut-but-trim figure and glowering charisma naturally evoke some of Hollywood’s more iconic leading men, from Bronson to Eastwood (though much of his genre fare puts him more in conversation with ‘90s action stars Stallone and Schwarzenegger). Maybe it’s the way those dark eyes, slightly sunken into his chrome dome, can flit between venom, snark and bemusement—even tenderness. That Statham’s never fully dropped his blokey London accent certainly seems worth noting; far from the cockney action-comedies that gave him his start, Statham brings something of his working class British background to the conquering heroes of his international blockbusters. (And when he’s attempted to branch out, braving a goofy Southern drawl in Parker or a New Yawk accent in Safe, it doesn’t usually stick beyond the half-hour mark.) Though some critics have faulted Statham for this, suggesting he’s incapable of shedding his linguistic origins, one could counter that Statham’s a savvy enough superstar to grasp that it’s key to his brand of authenticity.

Such is his power in the hyper-kinetic Crank movies, for example, that you will believe a man can fall several thousand feet from a helicopter (breaking his fall by landing on top of a car, of course) or super-charge his heart with jumper cables (one clamp attached to his nipple, the other to his tongue, in case you were curious). Of course, the tone of his best action-thrillers is often enthusiastically tongue-in-cheek; you don’t play a character who’s racing around in a hospital gown while sporting a massive erection unless you’re willing to entertain a laugh at your own expense.

Indeed, Statham’s proven that he can take a joke just as ably as a punch. In Paul Feig’s globetrotting, rib-tickling espionage comedy Spy, he plays an over-the-top James Bond type named Rick Ford, whose glaring intensity and world-renowned arrogance is surpassed only by his comically oblivious attitude toward colleagues who are either desperately in love with him, cheekily taking the mickey, or a little bit of both. Cursing like a sailor but bumbling through mission specifics (like the fact, for example, that every bad guy in the world knows his face), Ford’s a bit of a spectacle to watch. Early on, his utter conviction that their office is keeping “a Face/Off machine” secret from him, and his bewilderment that no one will admit this, takes a throwaway line and polishes it into a gem.

One scene in particular, where he guides Melissa McCarthy’s field agent through a litany of his larger-than-life achievements, stands as Statham’s crowning comedic achievement—mainly because he commits to it without a lick of irony. “I make a habit out of doing things that people say I can’t do: Walk through fire, waterski blindfolded, take up piano at a late age,” he offers, gaze severe and jaw preternaturally clenched, before continuing to list even more Herculean exploits. As Brian Grubb astutely notes, part of the joke is that such superhuman feats of badassery don’t fall far from what Statham’s characters accomplish sincerely in some of his other movies.

It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss Statham’s dramatic abilities. Even Statham’s happiest characters, of which there are relatively few, have about them some sense of melancholy, and it’s more common to see Statham playing characters who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Wrath of Man brings most to mind another legitimately excellent performance: Joey Jones in 2013’s Redemption, Steven Knight’s gritty back-alley thriller about a haunted ex-special forces soldier who slips into another man’s identity while hunting a killer in London’s seedy ganglands.

An unusually strong showcase for Statham’s more sensitive side, the film delves into its main character’s grief and addiction, as well as the corrosive nature of his rage. Funnily enough, the actor rises to the occasion precisely by downplaying his best-known attributes, from his premium-unleaded action acrobatics to that indomitable macho. Instead, Statham’s lethality is more-or-less accepted as backstory and the actor spends more time fleshing out his character’s anguish and vulnerability. This isn’t to say Redemption isn’t a classic Statham joint in other ways—“I’ll kill you…with this spoon,” he growls in one memorable scene—only that it uncovers new depths to his dramatic ability.

Wrath of Man similarly finds Statham drilling down, all fire and brimstone in a role that demands he appear an epic embodiment of his well-documented machismo—violence made flesh and blood. In terms of his collaborations with Ritchie, it hews closer to the unfairly maligned Revolver, Ritchie’s spiritual heel-turn into genre deconstruction, though its references are less abstract and more visceral, with Statham as a scowling angel of death. But if it takes a legend to play a myth, one thing’s for certain: Ritchie can surely cast with confidence.

Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Boston, who’s been writing professionally for seven years and hopes to stay at it for a few years more. Frequently over-excited and under-caffeinated, he sits down to surf the Criterion Channel but ends up, inevitably, on Shudder. You can find him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.

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