Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Mechanic (1972/2011)

A different take on auto repair
Charles Bronson. Jason Statham. Two paragons of badassery. Both actors are well known for playing brooding, tight-lipped anti-heroes who operate with calculating and ruthless efficiency. It almost seems too convenient that both should play the title character in The Mechanic so we might compare them so directly. But to be fair, the movies and the actors need to be judged separately.

The Plot

Arthur Bishop (Bronson/Statham) is a “mechanic,” a hitman who specializes in jobs that need to look natural. He is assigned to kill Harry McKenna (Keenan Wynn/Donald Sutherland), his company contact and friend. He dutifully carries out the job. At Harry’s funeral, Bishop meets his son Steve and they strike up a friendship of sorts. Steve doesn’t know about Bishop’s involvement in his father’s death and Bishop takes on Steve as an apprentice. Steve’s first job goes down messy and draws the attention of their boss. To make amends, they are offered a job that must be done quickly. Bishop doesn’t like the prospect of a rush job, but he reluctantly accepts. At this point the two films diverge somewhat…

In the original, Bishop returns home to tell Steve about the assignment. Instead, he discovers among Steve’s things a dossier on himself similar to the ones made up for other targets. Bishop brings Steve along anyway, but the rush job turns out to be a setup. The two escape and kill off the team of assassins. As the two are preparing to return home, Steve poisons Bishop. As he is dying, Bishop asks if this was because he killed Steve’s father. Steve reveals that he still had no idea. He essentially explains that he wanted to prove himself to be a superior killer than his mentor.

In the remake, Bishop and Steve run into complications on the rush job and must shoot their way out. They split up. Bishop encounters another mechanic who was supposedly dead and learns that he had been tricked into killing Harry as part of a cover up. With the secret out, a hit is ordered on Bishop and Steve. While the two are making preparations to take out their boss, Steve discovers his father’s prized gun among Bishop’s things, but keeps it secret. After they kill their boss, Bishop glimpses the gun in Steve’s jacket, but stays silent. They stop to refuel and Steve takes the opportunity to kill Bishop, blowing up the vehicle along with the gas station.

In both versions, Steve returns to Bishop’s house alone and immediately starts going through his things, making himself at home. Steve climbs into his/Bishop’s car and starts the engine. He then notices a note that in part reads, “Steve, if you're reading this then you're dead!” The car explodes. In the remake only, a security video from the gas station reveals that Bishop escaped just before the gas station exploded.

Fixing it up

I had always heard that Bronson’s Mechanic was somewhat of a classic, so I was surprised to find it so underwhelming. It suffers from very uneven pacing. Between long, dull photographic studies and equally overextended action sequences, little time is left to actually develop characters or tell a story. Indeed, the film is famous for having no dialogue for the first 16 minutes as Bronson meticulously sets up a hit. The same thing could have been achieved in a third of the time while still telling us everything we needed to know about his carful nature.

Compare that to Statham’s Mechanic, where he delivers his first hit by hiding at the bottom of a private swimming pool and dragging his target underwater to simulate a drowning. This is achieved in mere moments and, along with his carefully choreographed escape, reveals everything we need to know about his creative and fastidious methods. His character is further developed by having more time to interact with the other players and show that he isn’t simply the killing machine that he is described as.

Plus, the remake has
Donald Sutherland. Bonus!
It’s that human side that makes the remake all-around better than the original. Bronson and Statham stack up equally as calculating killers, but only Statham’s Mechanic makes believable the struggle between the isolation of his work and the need for a human connection. To be sure, we’re never really sure why Bronson takes on an apprentice. Is it a sense of guilt? Loyalty to Steve’s father? A need to pass on his knowledge and skills? One can’t be sure, but all these reasons come in to play with Statham’s Mechanic.

The remake also adds a level of intrigue by reimagining Steve as a much more likable character. Instead of being a haughty rich boy, he is a lovable loser in need of direction. Most of this is scripting, but Foster has a knack for drawing sympathy. Because of this, the audience is left somewhat unsure of who to root for, knowing that in the web of betrayal both of our heroes have betrayed eachother. Both have a cocky streak that proves their ultimate undoing, but it is very dissatisfying that Bronson should be offed by his apprentice when he is supposed to be this world-class hitman. The remake fixes this.

In spite of its shortcomings, the original Mechanic is a film that was deserving of a remake and all its best parts were preserved. Arthur Bishop is a realistic character and his devotion to planning and preparation grounds even his most daring exploits. Not many points can be doled out for originality in either case, but in spite of criticisms that the films are mere action flicks, both take an interesting look at timeless and universal themes of legacy, loyalty and betrayal. The attempt to do those themes some more justice is what inspires a very worthwhile remake.

8 comments:

  1. tryanmax, This is another article which some didn't come up until today. I think my blogger is broken. Hmm.

    Will comment after I read it. :)

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  2. It's interesting you should review this because I just watched Killer Elite for the first time last night. This was a film directed by Sam Peckinpah and staring James Caan and Robert Duvall. This hasn't actually been remade, though Statham just made a movie of the same title -- actually based on something else. BUT it suffers from the same issues as Bronson's Mechanic: the idea is solid, but the execution is underwhelming. There are too many scenes that could have been done not only quicker, but more efficiently and with greater punch. For example, we get to see 10 minutes of Caan slowly rehabbing after getting shot, which is frankly dull. We know where it will end up and making us watch it just doesn't help the film. I suspect if it were remade today, the same point could be made in a series of 3-4 quick scenes which move us through the months and develop the characters quicker.

    Further, I think a lot of the films of that period (early 1970s) relied on "the look" to convey what was going on. Thus, you have these scenes where Bronson, Caan, Eastwood just stand there staring at something for a minute and we're supposed to read their mind. I think this is again an area where modern techniques are better because it's much easier to understand what Statham is thinking because they give us clues along with the look. Half the time in The Killer Elite I really didn't know what Caan was actually thinking, but I could always follow Statham in The Mechanic.

    I think these are what does in the pacing in these older films.

    That said, there is a real deliberateness in these older films which is missing today and I don't mind a film taking its time when it gets all the other pieces right. The Statham version here is much more deliberate than a lot of his other films, but it still feels rushed compared to the 1970s stuff and I think losing that keeps the new films from feeling special and makes them more generic because you never get a contemplative moment.

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  3. LOL! "The Look!" I sense a new drinking game coming on!

    Rushed is a good way to put it, and I would lay that same criticism on both films. In the first film, Bronson did a lot of "looking," which really crunched the rest of the film. (And that 16-minute opening sequence is unbearable! Talk about a way to get people to not watch your film.)

    In the remake, they devoted more time to the characters and added a level of intrigue, but they also added another major action sequence. Basically, they freed up all that time by eliminating the look, but then they squandered about half of it.

    The thing is, I wouldn't cut anything from the remake. Instead, I would extend the runtime by about seven to ten minutes. It really doesn't take a whole lot of time to eliminate that rushed feel. Another technique that I actually like is finishing the film under the closing credits. The Statham escape sequence could have been done this way and probably held more impact.

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  4. BTW, what do you think of my new "Spoiler Alert" in the sidebar?

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  5. You know, I am a firm believer that a story needs to take whatever time it needs to be told right. And that means making sure that you get the right pacing and tell the plot you need -- nothing more, nothing less. Too many films try to squeeze into these precise run times and they end up hurting the film because they either inject a ton of filler or they strip out things that give the movie it's feel. I think you're right about both of these films -- neither "feels" right because the original wastes too much time and then rushes the important parts, and the remake feels like it never quite develops a chemistry -- it just moves from shot to shot like they are rushing to get it all done.

    I like your spoiler warning, very clever! LOL!

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  6. Just saw this article. I haven't seen the first one, but of course I saw Statham! :) I kept hearing the buzz about how it wasn't as good as the original, but I enjoyed the remake - for more than Statham. Glad to see I actually agree with someone who "thinks" about movies...

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  7. rlaWTX, I think perhaps Bronson's reputation makes people wrongly think of his films as "untouchable." I personally don't think anything is untouchable so long as you can make it better, and I feel like that's what was done here.

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