Why Does Jason Statham Get a Pass?

I like Jason Statham. Ever since he broke through with Guy Ritchie in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, he's been a popular figure in both the cult and action movie circuits. Statham's got charisma. He's got style. He wears bald nicely. He has a cool accent. He's easy to like. But let's be honest, his movies are largely terrible and he's mostly gotten a pass from the movie buffs. Why?

It isn't like I was expecting anything of real quality going into The Transporter. A bad-ass action flick would have sufficed. I mostly got what I was looking for ... and this was a nice way for Statham to carve his name into the action walk of fame, previously tagged by the likes of Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But if you look at the early careers of those actors, you see a progression in quality. They surrounded themselves with talent at the very least. In Willis' case, he actually had nowhere to go but down after Die Hard, one of the best movies of the '80s. But he stayed afloat in the talent pool for a while working with guys like Tony Scott and John McTiernan. He's also a decent actor and that helps to widen his options. But Arnie wasn't a very good actor. Statham is probably better equipped to handle the complexities of human emotion on the big screen than the former Governator. But Arnie has turned in better, more memorable performances in much better movies than Statham has ever dreamed. Statham doesn't have his Predator because he hasn't worked with a McTiernan. He hasn't worked with a guy like Ivan Reitman, who was at the top of his game in the '80s. Sure, Michael Mann gave Statham a bit part in Collateral (blink and you'll miss him), but Statham has never worked with a James Cameron. We haven't seen that progression ... better scripts, better directors. The best films on his resume are still his first two films.

Don't get me wrong. He hasn't been completely slumming it. The way I see it, you have four levels of your standard B-movie action star. Starting from the bottom you are looking at the Fly By the Night level, filled mostly of ex-athletes like Howie Long, Brian Bosworth, and John Cena. Next level up is the Lorenzo Lamas level. This is reserved for action stars who may not be as famous as guys like Cena (who dabbled in the genre) but have enough recognition (in Lamas' case, from TV) to somehow have a cult following. These action stars' movies mostly go straight to DVD (or in Lamas's time, VHS), mostly watched by people who hate all and any good movies. Michael Dudikoff and Jeff Speakman are first ballot hall of famers in that tier. Next up is the Jean Claude Van Damme level where the action star comes close one or two times to legitimate success with somewhat promising features (Time Cop, Universal Soldier, co-starring Lorenzo Lamas tier member Dolph Lundgren) only to watch those prospects get doused in apocalyptic flames. Steven Seagal sits comfortably on his couch, balding on this tier as well (a quick side note: when Jean-Claude Van Damme made Double Team, he was slumming it with Fly By the Night action star Dennis Rodman while Hey-I'm-just-happy-to-pick-up-a-paycheck-Mickey Rourke was actually slumming it by appearing in a Van Damme movie in the first place). Finally, you have the top tier for B-movie action stars where guys like Statham and Dwayne Johnson spend a good chunk of their career on scores of bad scripts and bad movies, like In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale and those insipid Crank movies. I know there are those of you out there who actually like the Crank movies, and I'll be honest: you frighten the bejesus out of me. The first Crank movie rates a seven out of 10 on IMDb. Seven out of 10!!! What is the matter with you people? Yikes. But they're in this top tier for a reason, so every once in a while they score with a well-received flick, something none of the other guys in the lower tiers ever get to enjoy.

And, those awful Crank movies aside, I think the majority of film buffs out there agree with me concerning the quality of films Mr. Statham appears in. And yet Statham isn't a punch line in the film community. He's maintained a modicum of respect. Ashton Kutcher, Katherine Heigl, and Cuba Gooding Jr.: these names are punchlines; they've become symbols of bad cinema. In Heigl's case, perhaps there is a healthy dose of misogyny at play. Many of Statham's action films are aimed at the lowest common denominator. And outside of Knocked Up, many of Heigl's romantic comedies are aimed at the lowest common denominator. But she makes romantic comedies. And he makes action films. He gets the pass.

I think it all boils down to perceived effort. Statham's movies are never emotionally demanding, that's for sure. But they are physically demanding. And he never appears to be mailing it in. He always appears focused. How much work he actually puts into his characters, I couldn't tell you. Maybe a lot. Maybe a little. I've never been "wowed" by his method or anything. But I've never watched a movie of his and thought to myself, This guy is totally mailing it in. Instead I've thought, Man, why doesn't this guy get better projects? He is rootable. He never appears disinterested. He may just be collecting a paycheck, but it doesn't look like he's just there to collect a paycheck. And right or wrong, maybe that's the knock on the likes of Gooding Jr., Kutcher, and Heigl. We feel they are wasting their talent with bonehead projects (Gooding Jr.) or living the charmed life while mailing it in (Kutcher). To be fair, I've never felt either way about Heigl, who is probably more of a victim of being a pretty face with average talent. Romantic comedy is her lot in life right now. She may not be any less talented than Statham, but she probably has fewer opportunities to exploit them.

Perhaps Statham turns it around with The Killer Elite, which looks more The Italian Job than Transporter 3. It's hard to tell how badly De Niro is slumming it here (he will appear in the seizure-inducing Gary Marshall syrup-fest New Year's Eve later this year, so we know he is in the Orsen Welles-doing-wine-commercials stage of his career). I'd hate to think Clive Owen's light has dimmed so low, so I have real hope that Statham's latest is an above-average effort. He follows Killer Elite up with the Boaz Yakin film Safe, the Stallonerific Expendables 2, and Parker (based on the Donald Westlake novel) directed by Taylor Hackford, perhaps the best director he's ever worked with outside of Guy Ritchie. If there's any movie to break the mold for the guy, it's that one right there. He's perfect for the material. So there's promise on the horizon. But I'm getting antsy over here. And action fans should be too. Because -- like Statham -- we deserve better.

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