Upon reflection, I'm a bit surprised it took this long for Jason Statham to star in a Charles Bronson remake. They fill the same niche in the Action Movie Star ecosystem: perpetually pissed-off tough guy who looks kind of scary no matter what he's doing, and kills people with more a sense of brutality than irony. And sure enough, Statham's lead role in The Mechanic, taking its title and concept and a little bit else from the 1972 Bronson vehicle directed by Michael Winner, finds Statham channeling his inner '70s-style antihero to awfully great effect; the new Mechanic isn't any kind of great film, nor even a great action movie, not that the old Mechanic was either of those things. It is, however, an entirely satisfying way to watch bad people kill worse people in outstandingly violent ways. If that's your cuppa, obviously.

Statham plays Arthur Bishop,* a hitman (or "mechanic") employed by some appropriately shadow company whose nature we never quite grasp. Bishop is stunned and saddened to find that his handler, Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland), has been selling out his company and the lives of the mechanics under his care, and accepts orders from the other company bigshot, Dean (Tony Goldwyn) to kill Harry. This afflicts the bloodless killer with an unwanted sense of guilt, which in turn leads him to take Harry's son Steve (Ben Foster) under his wing, and teach him how to be a top-notch hitman.

That's pretty much all we get for plot, though in the end Secrets Are Revealed just like you pretty much assumed they would be, and Bishop has to use all his skills to stay alive in the face of a lot of people that want him dead. For the most part, though, The Mechanic is a vignette-driven look into the life of a contract killer of particular efficiency and creativity - the title does double duty by suggesting that Bishop's schemes to assassinate targets are the machines he creates, well-oiled and fairly beautiful in their precision.

In other words: lots of scenes of Statham and Foster executing plans to murder people, though the film is short enough (at a blissfully uncluttered 93 minutes), and the twist kicks in early enough, that things never become as repetitive as they probably ought to. Besides, every different contract fills a distinct and unique narrative purpose (the phrase "narrative purpose" seems remarkably brazen of me in this context, doesn't it?), so it never once feels like Richard Wenk and Lewis John Carlino's screenplay descends into the grinding schematic of "this guy dies then this guy dies then that guy dies" which often afflicted the hyper-violent '70s action films that are The Mechanic's most obvious forerunners.

Like a good '70s picture, the most obvious characteristic of the film is its nastiness: most American action films are not nearly as bitter and brutal as The Mechanic, with its gratifying marriage of nihilism and fun (gratifying to people like me, anyway; normal people, and perhaps you are one of them, would probably not quite get the "fun" part of that equation). Simon West is not by any standard yardstick a great director: his filmography includes such benighted titles as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and the 2006 When a Stranger Calls, and he peaked with his 1997 debut feature, Con Air. Nothing in The Mechanic suggests that he's learned new tricks and is ready to join the top tier of action filmmakers, except this: his treatment of the film's considerable violence is remarkably candid, refusing to cover the brutality of so many bullets and strangulations with a romantic Hollywood sheen, instead documenting everything with a certain tossed-off air. The film is rough and unpleasant and it doesn't shy away from that or defang its protagonists through humor or tasteful editing: West digs right in and puts us in between the characters and their behavior. Even the apparent hedge of only allowing Bishop and Steve to kill "bad people" (a rival hitman, a cartel leader, an abusive religious charismatic) doesn't really play that way, given how obvious it is that Bishop doesn't really care one way or the other about the morality of what he's doing.

It was once the stock-in-trade of American genre films to have that sort of honest-to-God meanness that seemed to claim, even among all the escapist thrills, "yeah, but life still sucks". Nowadays, there seems to be little or no middle ground in most movies of this sort between the sanitary PG-13 depiction of killers as likable quipsters, their acts divorced from any sort of real consequence, and the rancidity of something like the Saw franchise, which indulge in the basest kind of unhinged misanthropy. Only rarely does something come along like The Mechanic, with its sucker punch of an ending and its colossally unsettling displays of violence - it is by no means terribly explicit by modern standards, but the violence is more tangible here than in something more cartoonish, and it thus has more impact - that is both entirely fun to watch and extremely dark and cruel.

And of course, Statham is the best possible star for this kind of material, an action star whose one-liners even seem more angry than comic, whose musculature is less "body-builder" than it is "street thug", and whose face never reveals any emotion than some variation of "Don't fuck with me". Perhaps surprisingly, Foster pairs exceptionally well with his co-star; he's perpetually been a "young actor to watch" for half a decade now, and while The Mechanic could function as nobody's coming-out party, it still has the feeling of being an important proving ground for the 30-year-old. He's exactly the right fit for a not-entirely-demanding role, the slightly less corroded version of Statham's own tough guy persona.

Lord knows it's not art; even as an action movie its thrills are fairly effervescent. For all that West is willing to go there with the violence, he's not much at staging a setpiece; and the film offers virtually nothing that isn't also to be found in every single other Jason Statham vehicle better than In the Name of the King. But its black heart is in the right place, and I have to be thankful for that: an action movie that understands what violence is can never be dismissed out of hand.