“You’re different!” So says an old colleague (Michelle Yeoh) who hasn’t seen Arthur Bishop, the mission-improbable hitman in “Mechanic: Resurrection,” for a long time. “Older,” he replies, coming out and stating the obvious. In fact, Jason Statham doesn’t merely look older than he did when he last played Arthur Bishop, in the 2011 thriller “The Mechanic.” He looks leaner and meaner, more squinty with resolve, more brutally and methodically sociopathic. With his hair cropped closer than usual, Statham has become a total bullet-head, a human ice pick — a machine of death.
For a while now, Jason Statham has been the thinking man’s smart/dumb B-movie action star. His films, or at least a lot of them, swim around in the grindhouse muck of bloodsport and revenge, a genre that has spawned such brooding blocks of wood as Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris. But Statham, unlike most action-pulp icons, is a genuine actor, with a darting intelligence and finesse. He has often been much better than the movies he’s in, and he has flirted with the A-list as well. It’s seriously doubtful that an action star pushing 50 would be considered for the role of James Bond, but it would be fascinating to see what Statham could do with it.
The closest he has probably come is the character of Arthur Bishop, assassin for hire, whose signature is that he kills and makes it all look like an accident; it’s his way of leaving no traces. Five years ago, in “The Mechanic,” Bishop trained a new protégé (played by Ben Foster), but the movie, loosely based on a 1972 Charles Bronson film, was ludicrous — a series of overwrought daredevil stunts and situations. It was too much over-the-top action, with not enough (borderline) plausibility.
“Mechanic: Resurrection” is the movie “The Mechanic” should have been — a bite-sized Bond film, or maybe a grittier homicidal knockoff of the “Mission: Impossible” series, with a lone-wolf renegade as the entire team. Bishop, living undercover in Brazil, is hunted down by his boyhood frenemy, Craine (Sam Hazeldine), who orders him to perform three kills. He has no desire to do any of them, but Craine holds a trump card: Gina (Jessica Alba), whom Bishop has rescued and fallen for. He thought he was finished with murder-for-hire, but now he has to kill for love.
It’s part of the film’s compact efficiency that in scene after scene, Bishop carries off in about 20 minutes what Tom Cruise and company would spend an entire hour to plan. There’s a downside to that: In a great M:I adventure, like Brad Bird’s hypnotically intense “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” the stakes were high, and when Cruise slithered around on the tallest skyscraper in Dubai, the effect was pure heart-in-the-throat, hands-clawing-the-seat poetic vertigo.
In “Mechanic,” there’s a scene that’s a knockoff of that Dubai spider-walk, with Bishop using electronic suction cups to slither up to the penthouse swimming pool of a mining billionaire in Sydney. Bishop, unlike Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, has no short circuits or slip-ups; he’s too manly for that. He swings around on his harness, then drills a hole in the pool’s glass bottom and inserts a tiny cone, which gets injected with fluid until it cracks the glass. (The villain falls right through.) It’s as impeccable as a physics equation: The result is one kill (of a really, really bad guy), but the spirit is that of a heist thriller. It is all, in every sense, perfectly executed.
Everything else Bishop does is just as pinpoint. His first target is an African warlord who has barricaded himself inside an Alcatraz-like prison fortress. Bishop gets himself arrested and placed in the prison, then arranges to save the warlord’s life as a way of getting invited to dinner. It’s all staged, by director Dennis Gansel, with enough connect-the-dots ingenuity to spin you right past your disbelief — or, at least, to make an enjoyable wink at it. Then Tommy Lee Jones shows up, wearing the wardrobe of a Eurotrash playboy, as a weapons dealer with a circular lair that evokes the one in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” Jones phones in his performance but classes up the proceedings; at last, Statham can share scenes with an actor as quick as he is.
The relentless invincibility of the hero is part of what reduces an action film to pulp rather than art. But Jason Statham — or, at least, the Jason Statham brand — has no more room for vulnerability than the hero of a combat videogame. He’s all kick-ass all the time, and “Mechanic: Resurrection,” having served up a soupçon of cleverness, wastes no time delivering the bullet-spraying, jaw-smashing goods. Even here, Statham draws on the inner heat of his intelligence. He’s like a Bruce Lee of automatic-weapon fire, so awesomely quick in his decision-making — he’ll use this gun, which then runs out of bullets, necessitating this head-butt, which leads, inevitably, to this lightning-fast roll behind something that can shield him — that his split-second intensity lends everything that happens a kick of spontaneity. In “Mechanic,” he’s a mechanic of murder, of escape, of ingenuity, of combat. He’s too good (and too badass) to be true, but that’s why we like him. It would be nice to see Statham make a movie one day that’s accomplished enough to raise his game. Until that happens, “Mechanic: Resurrection” will do.