Jason Statham is the action hero we need

Jason Statham is the action hero we need

Dwayne Johnson once called himself “franchise Viagra,” based on the fact that he was cast as a substitute lead for the sequels to G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra and Journey To The Center Of The Earth, as well as appearing in Fast Five for a long-proposed onscreen fight with Vin Diesel. Yet it’s his costar in the Fast spinoff Hobbs And Shaw who actually merits that designation. In a post-star system, Jason Statham is one of the few who can start a franchise based solely on his appearance. Crank, The Transporter, and hell, The Mechanic are all movies sold on the notion of Statham kicking ass, and they all got sequels.
He’s also a legitimate added value element to other franchises: The Meg’s big draw is a shark, but Statham fighting it adds bonus appeal. Death Race was a remake of an early Sylvester Stallone dystopian action movie, with Statham a worthy successor; likewise, in 2013’s Parker, he followed in the footsteps of Mel Gibson and Lee Marvin, who previously played the same lead character based on the novels of Donald Westlake. The Expendables’ initial hook was an assemblage of cinematic action heroes old and new, but of the “new,” only Statham has continued to work steadily as an action hero in A-list projects. Terry Crews, Liam Hemsworth, Ronda Rousey, Randy Couture, and Stone Cold Steve Austin haven’t exactly vanished into obscurity, but we don’t see their names above the title on any posters in theater lobbies these days. Indeed, we’re more likely to see them in their previous niches, as special guest athletes (Austin/Couture/Rousey), in comedies and commercials (Crews), and as a second-most-famous brother (Hemsworth), while Statham continues to mostly show up on big screens, IMAX screens, 4DX screens … all of it.

As for the Fast And Furious franchise, Dwayne Johnson’s notable difficulties getting along with Vin Diesel have had him in and out at different times, while Statham has steadily plugged along since debuting in the series, first as a villain and then a hero. In Fast X, out this week, his storyline cliffhanger remains one of the most compelling of the series’ many convolutions—how will his Deckard Shaw be able to work together with Han (Sung Kang), the man he supposedly killed either four or seven movies ago? (Not counting Hobbs And Shaw.) Later this summer, in The Meg 2 and The Expendables 4, he continues to prove himself a crucial part of franchises that don’t theoretically depend on him for their premises to work.
A man’s man and Guy’s guy

It was not always thus for Statham. The consummate tough guy was once a male model, albeit one chosen for having average-joe looks, which is arguably the perfect preparation for being a cinematic take on a realistic tough guy. When he made his acting breakthrough in Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, director Guy Ritchie cast him not for his extensive martial arts training and competitive diving background, but for his experience running a stand at an open-air market. Statham in both movies plays a man better suited to talking than brawling, with the action spotlight going more to violent ex-footballer Vinnie Jones and Hollywood beefcake Brad Pitt playing Irish. His grounded reactions to the craziness around him made Statham more of an audience surrogate, and suggested he could have a lot more range than the guy who fights and steals things. Yet fighting and stealing onscreen have consistently paid his bills since then.
In the right hands, Statham seems like the sort of actor who could pull a Mel Gibson-like transition from action movies to dramas and rom-coms and everything else. But does he want that? And more importantly, do we? In the ’80s and ’90s, fans of mid-range budgeted films had no shortage of go-to action stars. You went to a movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, or Steven Seagal, or Sylvester Stallone, and barring the occasional high-concept where they added star value (think Timecop, Street Fighter, Demolition Man), or out-of-character comedy (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!) you knew exactly what you were going to get. Statham may be the only top guy about whom we can say that now. Sure, Tom Cruise largely leans into action mode nowadays, but he’s handled a wide variety of roles and genres. And Liam Neeson is a reliable senior butt-kicker in about 50% of his output, but he clearly desires to be more than that.

For Statham’s future, look to the past
Someone like Stallone simply can’t physically do what Statham does now, but he offers a future roadmap for aging badasses, one previously traversed by the likes of Kirk Douglas and Lee Marvin. When being a hero becomes too much of a strain, be a boss. Show up as a beloved character actor in franchise movies. Indulge in the occasional bit of self-parody (we need Spy 2 already). And then, sooner or later, those up-and-coming filmmakers who loved you as a kid will write something cool and unexpected, like Quentin Tarantino did for Robert Forster, or David Lynch did for Robert Blake. Produce a legacy sequel to a beloved earlier film. Occasionally get awards nominations.

We need and want someone in that position, to be the designated hellraiser without becoming too much of one in real life—like Gibson did. Keanu Reeves has his niche as a Zen-cool angel of death, but just as much of one in comedy and voice-over, along with an unshakeable reputation for being really nice in person. Statham, despite an apparent recent contract clause that says he can’t get beaten up too badly, feels like a guy who’s been through it. Try to envision him in your mind, and he’s probably scowling like he just took a punch. Picture Tom Cruise, and he’s more likely flashing his pearly whites in perma-smile. Statham’s handsome enough to be a movie star, but savvy enough to know his base doesn’t want him to preen like one.
Instead, he’s an actor born and bred to communicate badassitude. Sure, he could do a drama about losing the family farm, or a rom-com where he and, say, Minnie Driver keep missing each other’s calls. He’d be fine, but he’d also be one among many. The power of the punch compels him. And until someone younger comes along–the Internet keeps really, really hoping for Scott Adkins, but it’s not clear he’ll ever be the guy—we need a Statham out there to let us know exactly what we’re gonna get from him.

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