Egad, are there filmmakers out there who can take material previously handled by the infamous Michael Winner and make a worse make that much worse movie out of it? Based on the evidence of director Simon West’s new version of Winner’s The Mechanic (1972), starring Jason Statham as a hit man, the answer is an emphatic yes.
Winner’s filmmaking career began in England in 1960 and ended in the U.S. in 1994. His most well-known movies are those he made with Charles Bronson, in particular the first three Death Wish efforts, a series that began in 1974 and was resurrected, zombie-like, every time Bronson’s career needed a good goosing (1981 and 1985). As a young director, Winner layered a superficial, swinging London gloss onto thin, routine stories, turning out movies that looked hip and contemporary (he made three movies in a row that had the word “cool” in the title). In 1966, he scored an international hit with a mild satire, The Jokers, starring Oliver Reed and Michael Reed as a couple of irreverent, upper class brothers who try to pull off a heist. Winner had another hit serio-comic adventure thriller with Reed, Hannibal Brooks (1969), then, a picture or two later, finally teamed up with Bronson to make a European western, Chato’s Land (1971). Then it was Hello, Hollywood.
It was in Tinsel Town where Winner’s visual affectations were revealed as the tattered rags they were. Creatively, he just couldn’t adapt to American stylized realism. Winner had some luck with a handful of Bronson vehicles; the crude style and the series’ increasingly mindless violence attracted a large-enough audience to make them profitable, especially in foreign markets. But they hardly offset some historic box office disasters. To give just a couple of examples: the shot-in-America Won Ton TonThe Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976), and the back-in-Britain god-awful remake The Big Sleep (1978). Yet, Winner kept at it until the mid-90s when he put away the viewfinder and, eventually, became a food critic for The Times of London. When all was said and done, all he had was attitude.
Simon West must have struck someone as a modern match for Winner. West’s background is in television advertising and music videos, two fields that, by definition, invest banal material (commodities, pop songs) with a sense of desirability. His first film, for producer Jerry Bruckheimer, was Con Air (1997) which was so suffused with sadism that it came to seem a normal state sort of like a Death Wish with wings.
West’s version of The Mechanic is out of the action subgenre initiated by The Transporter (2002), stripped-down volcanic mixes of chases and shoot-‘em-ups. These Euro-American versions of Asian “bullet ballets” benefitted from a stylish kick-off from Hong Kong director Corey Yuen and the almost inevitable presence of Jason Statham, the tight-lipped, partly bald, charismatic and talented English leading man.
This new Mechanic indicates the subgenre is running on fumes. The opening sequence is too ridiculous to give a pass: Statham’s character kills some evil-looking Latin American general, escapes what seems to be the better part of an army, and times everything so well that he manages to get to a bridge just in time to make a giant leap onto a boat just as it passes below. Improbable action is one thing, but geez.
This bit of action sets the tone for what will come. The air of excessive fantasy keeps any real sense of violent excitement from forming; the movie demands we appreciate its action so often we can hardly enjoy it. Director of photography Eric Schmidt (who also has a background in music video) ensures we know he showed up for work by indulging an unending appetite for washing images in monochromatic tints. Editors Todd E. Miller and T.G. Herrington follow the modern dictum that the characters’ confusion be mimicked with confusing cutting. Finally, the movie is caught up in a moral fog. West bends over backwards to make sure we don’t judge anyone by the amount of murder and destruction they’re responsible; everyone we see is in the mayhem biz. So we go by looks: Donald Sutherland is cuddly nice despite being a murder contractor. Ben Foster looks like the Tasmanian Devil from the Warner Bros. cartoons so, despite the fact that he’s out to avenge his father’s cold-blooded murder, he’s a villainous psychopath.
The 1972 Mechanic features the same character an aspiring hit man who is the son of one of the anti-hero’s victims and he, too, turns out to be a psychopath. But we don’t know that because of any excessive behavior on the character’s part. Instead, Winner emphasizes actor Jan-Michael Vincent’s bland cool, gradually revealing it is mere cover for a pre-psychotic personality.
Bronson’s character is even more perverse; he’s a full-blown sociopath. In the second scene, he returns home to the arms of his lover (Jill Ireland) and the two exchange emotional and physical intimacies. But it turns out to be a sham. The woman is a prostitute who plays the part under her john’s detailed instructions.
Clearly, Lewis John Carlino’s screenplay typically doesn’t muffle itself in trumpeting its peculiarities (he wrote and directed The Great Santini and The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea). (This shouldn’t mask the fact that its virtues have been eviscerated by Richard Wenk’s update.)
The true auteur of the 1972 Mechanic, or at least the first among many, is its director of photography, Richard Kline. Kline had already made his reputation by 1968 when he shot his third film as DP, Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler (1968). Klein started with a realistic base, but built on it with clearly delineated color and an almost incredible ability to highlight detail. Kline could proceed to pair up an almost documentary-like sequence (the Rear Window-like opening murder) with a soft, dreamy one (the meeting of the “lovers”). He could even pair up separate moods in a single shot, as he did when he filmed a killer’s victim just as he realizes he’s a target, a moment of stark realism and disconcerting nightmare. Differentiation without disjunction is a hallmark of American cinematography and Kline mastered it.
Not every director is an auteur and an auteur can be found further down the credits. Kline’s work deserves more attention for the influence it may have exerted.