February 10, 2015
I take comfort in Jason Statham. For more than a decade now he has been taking his shirt off in modestly budgeted action movies, ones that usually open in the first quarter of the year. These are the months of low expectations for studios, in which they release films they don’t deem worthy of expensive marketing campaigns, usually made up of genre films of low birth. These are the months, and the films, where Statham has found his niche as a leading man (he has been in blockbusters in supporting parts, as in The Expendables franchise and the forthcoming Furious 7 and Spy). They are directed by journeymen with titles as blunt as their plots: Homefront, Redemption, Parker, Safe, and The Mechanic. They are all about lone men with particular sets of fibula cracking skills, though Statham has made simpler, lower-budgeted projects since his work with the operatic Luc Besson on The Transporter series (2002 – 2008) and the ADD-aggro Crank films (2006 – 2009). Since filming The Mechanic (2011) in New Orleans, Statham and his producing partner Steve Chasman have followed the tax credits, forming their movies around which city gave them the best deal to shoot. This economic incentive has made for atmospheric, enclosed action films that allows for such absurdities as shooting Philadelphia-for-New York City in Safe. Statham is asserting more control over his work, and his latest feature, Wild Card, is the first made for his own production company, SJ Pictures. Released day-and-date in late January on VOD and very limited theatrical, it seems to have already disappeared without a trace. But it’s a low key charmer, an episodic tour through the dregs of Las Vegas society (partly filmed in, yes, New Orleans) that’s less action movie than a downbeat character piece with brief flashes of violence to keep the fans happy.
After remaking Michael Winner’s The Mechanic (1972) with Simon West and adapting the Donald Westlake novel Flashfire for his film Parker (directed by Taylor Hackford), Statham again shows his good taste by taking the 1986 Burt Reynolds film Heat as the source for Wild Card, with William Goldman adapting his own novel for the screenplay, as he did on the ’86 film. Showing a vulnerable streak first exhibited in Steven Knight’s Redemption, Statham plays a depressive loser with the improbable name of Nick Wild. Wild has the requisite special forces background of a Statham hero, but here he’s reduced to escorting callow dot commers around the casinos while vainly dreaming of a life in Corsica — a resort life fantasy that Statham acted out in The Transporter. Instead Wild is dragged into a number of small time nettles. There are two main plots. The first is his relationship with Cyrus Kinnick (Michael Angarano), a Fiji water drinking rich kid who hires Wild to ferry him around town. The other story concerns his young friend Holly (Dominik Garcia-Lorido), who was used and abused by mob boss offspring Danny DeMarco (Milo Ventimiglia). She implores Nick to help her get revenge, though the repercussions of attacking the DeMarco family would cause their exile from Vegas. Facing the end of everything he knows, Wild tries for one big score before cutting town. Nothing works as intended.
Statham has become interested in chipping away at his persona. The opening of Wild Card is a typical Statham set-up, a brawl in a bar parking lot with a drunk tool begging for a smack in the face. Except it’s Statham who is the tool, and he does get smacked. It turns out to be a set-up so his friend can impress his girl (Sofia Vergara), but it’s an indication that Statham is ready to play around within the limitations of his brand. He is allowed to playact vulnerability, but hasn’t yet been allowed to fully follow through. In Redemption, written and directed by Steven Knight (Locke), Statham plays a Afghanistan war veteran turned homeless alcoholic who rebuilds his life with the help of a Polish nun. A dark, melancholic film that takes place almost entirely at night, it’s the closest thing to an art film that Statham has made, though it still has its share of fisticuffs. It barely got a stateside release, though Statham was enthusiastic about what the film allowed him to do. He told The Guardian that, “This is one of the most rewarding experiences that I’ve had. Most of the scripts that land on my desk are stuff you read and go, ‘Is someone really gonna make this?’ It’s been a revelation.” Later, he continues to chafe against the market niche he has built for himself:
The dilemma is that you have to do something that people want to see. So if you’ve got a story about a depressed doctor whose estranged wife doesn’t wanna be with him no more, and you put me in it, people aren’t gonna put money on the table. Whereas if you go, ‘All he does is get in the car, hit someone on the head, shoot someone in the fucking feet,’ then, yep, they’ll give you $20m. You can’t fault these people for wanting to make money. It’s show business. Ugh, I hate that word.
While I don’t want to see Jason Statham start making domestic dramas, the way in which he is straining against the borders of his genre has become fascinating. Wild Card is unusually relaxed for a Statham film. The tempo is slow, the movie moving more on atmosphere than drama. It builds it’s own Vegas out of the New Orleans locations, a loop of marginal businesses that form the backbone of Nick Wild’s life. Director Simon West and DP Shelly Johnson have come up with a sun-drenched overexposed Vegas, one in which Wild has nowhere to hide. Wild’s office is a peeling linoleum, fluorescent-lit tomb that he shares with a shady lawyer (a blink and you’ll miss him Jason Alexander) whom he treats with barely suppressed contempt. His escape is an All-American retro diner at which he drinks grapefruit juice and trades barbs with waitress Roxy (an appealingly grubby Anne Heche). His favorite casino is a worn out thinly carpeted antique where he plays blackjack with dealer Hope Davis, who exhibits a entire backstories of emotion in the crinkle at the edge of a smile. These are Stathams we really haven’t seen before: grouchy office worker, shooting-the-shit gladhander, and depressive, melancholy addict. The film doesn’t push any of these facets very far, as there are intricate, impressive fight scenes to get to involving ashtrays and butter knives (choreographed by Cory Yuen – director of the first Transporter). The tension between the downbeat story and the pressure to get all the traditional Statham stuff in causes a seam to emerge in the film, it seems incomplete, almost at odds with itself. Wild Card is in no rush to get anywhere, content to let the various Stathams contradict each other, and let various plot strands disappear over the horizon. I was beguiled by its incompleteness.