Our Jase, action hero

“Biggest Meg anyone’s ever seen”, says Jason Statham in The Meg 2: The Trench. Ben Wheatley’s preposterous summer monster movie plays to the strengths of its star, who was once a member of the England diving team, so it makes sense to put him in the water, on a jetski, waving a harpoon at a megalodon, the sort of aquatic apex predator that makes Jaws look like an anchovy. To paraphrase Fanny Brice’s famous quote about swimming-champ-turned-Hollywood-actress Esther Williams: “Wet, he’s a star.”

There was a time when I had my doubts about Statham, wet or dry. Before he started modelling for Tommy Hilfiger and French Connection, he also did a stint as a barrow boy. So when Guy Ritchie wanted to add some authentic street cred to his directing debut, the laddish banter-fest Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), he cast Jason alongside Vinnie Jones, the former Wimbledon midfielder best known for grabbing Paul Gascoigne by the testicles. Alas, the success of Ritchie’s admittedly diverting shaggy-dog yarn and its follow-up, Snatch (2000), would spawn an epidemic of execrable British wannabe-gangster movies by largely incompetent filmmakers who fancied themselves well hard, and, as an unfortunate side-effect, tainted my opinion of Statham, whom I once found as charmless as Ritchie’s films.

Jason Statham in “Revolver” (2005)

Well, mea culpa, for now I see the error of my ways. Stathers has somehow wangled his way into being England’s biggest working-class film star since Michael Caine, and while he might not (yet) be as versatile and accomplished as Sir Michael, he has spent the past two decades matching his forebear’s erstwhile work ethic of never mind the quality, take a butcher’s at this absolute lorryload of quantity. Over two and a half decades, Statham – brooding, buzz cut, semi-shaven – has worked his butt off, becoming a fixture in interchangeable action movies as a hardboiled anti-hero. He also landed recurring roles in three major action franchises (The Transporter, Fast & Furious, The Expendables), added his tough guy credentials to remakes of The Italian Job (2003), Death Race (2008) and The Mechanic (2011) and played hitman Chev Chelios in the gleefully offensive diptych Crank (2006) and Crank: High Voltage (2009), in which he embodied the human equivalent of the bus in Speed (1994). If his adrenaline level drops, his heart, the film and probably everybody watching it will explode.

Occasionally, peeking through the pea soup of testosterone, there were glimmers of class. The heist thriller The Bank Job (2008), a fictionalisation of the real-life 1971 Baker Street safety deposit burglary, was scripted by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, whose witty TV variations on the loveable rogue (The Likely Lads, Porridge, Lovejoy) have always felt more authentic than anything Ritchie could conjure up. But even Guy and Jason’s collaborations (five to date) have become less laddish. The existential gangster pic Revolver (2005), in which Statham abandoned his usual suedehead look for an unkempt Jesus barnet, baffled their fans, who complained it was confusing and pretentious – which it was, albeit gloriously so, plus it featured Ray Liotta in leopardskin underpants. There was evidence of even more nuance in the duo’s Wrath of Man (2021), a serpentine remake of the crisp French thriller Le Convoyeur (2004). And Statham himself seems agreeably down-to-earth in real life: “I’m not an actor really,” he said in an interview.

Peeking through the pea soup of testosterone, there were glimmers of class

It’s arguable that action stars don’t need to know how to act anyway. More crucial is a physical presence that suggests they might conceivably be capable of the death-defying feats on screen. Russell Crowe in Gladiator (2000), combining brawn and intellect to hint at a spiritual mindset behind the Herculean façade, was an anomaly. Lunkhead action heroes are rarely given to introspection, especially in the case of the 1980s behemoths whose larger-than-life musculature and doubt-free demeanour defined Reagan’s America, as delineated in Nick de Semlyen’s new book The Last Action Heroes – Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, followed by Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren.

Jason Statham with Bai Ling in “Crank: High Voltage” (2009)

Even as that decade was drawing to a close, there were already signs the reign of the übermensch would soon be coming to an end, or relegated to VHS. Bruce Willis in Die Hard (1988) signalled a new breed of action hero: more human, less animated-tree-trunk. His 21st-century descendants are likewise sleeker and not afraid to show vulnerability, with Tom Cruise or Keanu Reeves training so hard to prepare for their Mission: Impossible or John Wick action workouts the effort is palpable on screen. These poor heroes, you sometimes feel, could do with a nice relaxing holiday, or at least a good nap.

Statham may be more of a throwback to the invulnerable leading man, but he has the physique of a swimmer rather than a bodybuilder. Moreover, he is so secure in his own hypermasculine identity he can take the mickey out of it. If you need receipts, watch Paul Feig’s action comedy Spy (2015), in which Our Jase proves himself a splendid macho foil to Melissa McCarthy’s rookie field agent. “I once used defibrillators on myself,” he deadpans. “I put shards of glass in my fucking eye.” Wet, he’s a star, definitely, but nor is Statham a slouch when it comes to serving up dry humour.

Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist and photographer

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Arts & Culture, August / September 2023, Billboard

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