Jason Statham is one of the few red-blooded action heroes working in Western cinema these days. He’s either ahead of the brawny hero renaissance (very likely, considering the ripped and rising likes of Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, and Joe Manganiello) or a lonely throwback to the glory days of the 1980s. Wherever he falls, I’m glad he’s around and making the kind of grubby thrillers you can drink beer to or watch at 2 a.m. without losing too much of the plot. (And if you’re behind on your Statham, you can check out the Top Five / Bottom Five I did on the British beefcake earlier this year.)
But as you go through Statham’s resume, you might ask yourself whether Mr. Lean and Mean has cherry-picked himself into a bit of a career rut. Does he just play one thing? Is he always the sympathetic tough guy? Does he ever play the villain? The loser? The lover, not the fighter? The answer is a resounding yes. Statham has varied his character game quite a bit over his long and appreciable career. Let’s look at the evidence, shall we?
Statham began his career as the lovable loser, not the antihero. In his cinematic debut as Bacon in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, he was just one of the not-too-bright gang. He’s certainly noticeable, but he’s not any stronger, smarter, or more sympathetic than anyone else in the film. If you were being uncharitable, you’d call him a thug and say he deserves whatever violent fate is coming to him.
In Snatch, his second outing with Ritchie, Statham was slightly more morally upright, but no tougher a hero. As Turkish, he loses all his money, sees his casino trashed by thugs, and is nearly executed by a gangster. If forced to fight Brad Pitt’s Mickey O’Neil, I’m not sure he’d emerge the victor. It’s the admittedly rare role where he displays wit and witlessness instead of lethal cunning, and makes me wish he’d ease up on the fitness regimen and do an all-out comedy sometime.
Statham was the villain in Turn It Up, Cellular, Chaos, War, and 13, though the last three depend on convoluted twists for his villainy. Still, you weren’t cheering for him at the end, so that counts in his favor.
He’s a humble bagman in a Collateral cameo (blink and you miss him), and the getaway driver in The Italian Job, both of which are far cries from his slick Transporter series, where he’s bagman, driver, and hit man all in one sturdy, bone-crunching package. The same goes for Ghosts of Mars, where he’s just a second-tier soldier, waiting patiently to be picked off by the titular extraterrestrial spirits.
In Mean Machine, he’s a psychotic mass-murdering Scotsman who is recruited to play goal for Vinnie Jones’ scrappy soccer team. Not surprisingly, he’s pretty loose with the contact rules and he’s likeable only because we’re rooting for the entire team of convicts. (Man, it does warm the heart when a bunch of cons are able to lift their spirits through the bonds of sport!)
London may be a role even humbler than his stints with Ritchie. He’s a glorified wingman to Chris Evans. While the copious amounts of cocaine make you think you’re in for some thrills, Statham spends the whole movie snorting it, and moping about love and life with Evans. There is a fistfight, and I don’t know if it’s more or less cool with the knowledge Statham ‘s character is impotent, but it’s hardly a vigorous role. It’s meant to be thoughtful and emotional. There are no guns or MMA to be found.
He’s a nothing but a professional gambler in Revolver and while he’s got the usual tragic backstory of a Statham hero (lost his family and the life he cherished), Statham’s formidable side is buried in neon, a hair piece, and Kabbalah musings. It’s definitely not the kind of action film he’s become known for.
I’d also argue that Chev Chelios of Crank and Crank 2: High Voltage skirts the very edge of sympathetic. We root for him because he’s a little nicer than the chemical-injecting, heart-thieving villains, but he doesn’t do a single thing that’s admirable. The grim-but-good men of The Transporter, Blitz, The Expendables, Killer Elite, and the upcoming Safe all inevitably do the right thing when asked. Chev will run over an old lady pushing a baby carriage if it ensures his survival. That's dark stuff that really does buck against the perceived Statham type.
The Mechanic isn't a tender gun-toter either. Arthur Bishop is pure ambiguity. Unlike Chev Chelios, he'll abide by laws of humanity and decency (save for one grisly moment) but he's not exactly a guy you can trust or take home for dinner. He's only as good as Ben Foster's Steve McKenna is bad, and that means you can't really root for him ... but you do, because hey, it's Statham's movie and you can't not cheer on his sweaty theatrics.
We must also -- although we don't want to -- consider In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. In this "film," he’s just a simple farmer named Farmer who is forced to rise up, avenge his family, and save the kingdom. If he was meant to be a sympathetic tough guy, the character would have been named Sympathetic Tough Guy and not Farmer. So while he may swing a sword and demand our sympathy (and I’m pretending as though this is a real film and not something that provokes laughter), he’s clearly not the usual stalwart Statham hero. He's a farmer. So there.
Finally, as the last exhibit against typecasting, he was a gnome in Gnomeo and Juliet. A gnome. Statham didn’t voice just any gnome either, but willingly lent his London growl to the bad gnome.
Who says he’s not willing to play against that sympathetic and tough type? Not I. And not to his face. While he’s definitely settled into a bit of a surly-and-doughty-with-a-heart-of-gold type, I'm not going to complain, because he's bucked it in the past. Besides, did we ever complain when the action heroes of old did it (and with far less experimentation than Statham)? No. No, we did not.
So, let’s enjoy what he’s done (well, some of it) and look forward to his leg sweeps, shirtlessness, growls, and throat punches of the future. Statham is the man. And at least we've got one.