MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVD, The Rest: The Mechanic, Blue Valentine, No Strings Attached, The Alien Movies


The Mechanic (Two Stars)

U.S.: Simon West, 2011 (Sony)

Remember 1972? The great movie year of The Godfather, of Cabaret, of Deliverance, of Frenzy, and Junior Bonner, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Fellini’s Roma, Cries and Whispers, Solaris, Ulzana‘s Raid, The King of Marvin Gardens, Avanti!, Sleuth, and Play It Again, Sam?

One minor pleasure of that superb movie year was The Mechanic, an over-violent and somewhat sleazy, but cleverly written and acted thriller about an aging hit man (Charles Bronson), his young, amoral protege (Jan-Michael Vincent), and their adventures in assassination-land.

1972’s Mechanic was coldly filmed by the straight-ahead British action director Michael Winner (Death Wish). But the story and script were unusual. They were smartly written by the gifted and sometimes lyrical playwright-turned-screenwriter Lewis John Carlino, who wrote (and sometimes directed) interesting, offbeat films like Seconds, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, The Great Santini and Resurrection. And Carlino’s script for the first Mechanic has a classical sense of structure, irony between the bloodlettings, and a surprise ending that few forget.

I suppose it makes sense that, if you were going to remake a movie these days from 1972 (which is really one of the all time great movie years, along with 1925, 1939-1941, 1946, 1962 and 1974), it would be something like The Mechanic, something that was formulaic, but knowing. Even so, it reportedly took 17 years to put this show together, by the original producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff (and Chartoff‘s son William) — with Carlino getting a co-writer credit (with Richard Wenk) and Simon West, of the ridiculous but high-grossing Lara Croft, Tomb Raider directing.

It figures. This kind of cold, cynical, head-bashing entertainment — with two protagonists/“anti-heroes” who would be villains in most other movies (except that Bishop tries to avoid sadism and at least shows qualms about killing good guys) –is exactly the kind of gaudy, slick, bloody show many filmmakers try to make these days. The Mechanic’s brutal vision of a world of guilty “haves” and triumphant opportunists, as well as its chic, punchy style, are both, unfortunately, “state of the art.”

It even may be possible for somebody to see the first Mechanic as a movie ahead of its time, or a story that hasn’t aged, or a movie that just needs a little Simon West Con Air flash and dazzle to get contemporary again. I see it more as an okay second tier picture that was a precursor of bad times ahead. Bad times that include this remake.

In 1972, Bronson — post-Once Upon a Time in the West, post-Rider on the Rain, his stardom here and abroad near its peak — played Bishop, the cool killer who dispatched an old friend, Harry McKenna (Keenan Wynn), then took Harry’s son Steve (Vincent) under his wing to teach him the bloody tricks of his trade.

In the new movie, Bishop is played by Jason Statham, Harry by Donald Sutherland, and Steve by Ben Foster (the young soldier in The Messenger). The relationships are similar, but the only one of these three that betters his predecessor, and not by much, is Sutherland. Playing a part like this, Sutherland‘s eyes are like great baggy pools of sarcasm and what-the-hell amusement, and his wry delivery is dead solid perfect. He’s become an invaluable Michael Caine-Gene Hackman shot-of-reality style character actor. (Sutherland‘s 1972 movie, by the way, was the anti-Vietnam War show, F.T.A.)

Bronson played Bishop with his usual taciturn machismo and relish, but Statham, whose best film role was in The Bank Job, is as grim, glum and grinless as if he had just wandered in from a pledge drive for the Black Plague. Vincent (co-star of the John Milius surfing classic, Big Wednesday) played Steve like a nasty surfer, waiting for the next wave or the next orgy. But Foster does it punkish and creepy, with little half grins that suggest a nasty voyeur, set to spy on Vincent‘s orgies.

The plot has become even more schematic and brutal, slavishly dependent on the action scenes we know will keep coming: the garrotings, the drownings, the explosions. Bishop has an evil, ultra-corporate fashion-plate of a boss named Dean (Tony Goldwyn, who acts like a villain and directs like a hero), and Dean hires Bishop to kill Bishop’s best friend (Sutherland), and then sends him off to dispatch a lot of scummy associates, including a slimy gun salesman, another hit man (James Logan as Jorge Lara), and a phony big-time media guru (John McConnell as Vaughn).

These killings are not just violent, but madly, unreasonably, almost laughably violent — not clean and fast the way you’d expect a pro hit man to strive for, but stretched out and operatic, like grudge killings planned by a vengeful psychotic. Or action scenes designed to knock an audience bass-ackwards.

Sometimes, the bloodiness is due to a character point, to neophyte Steve’s inexperience — as when Steve allows the huge and horny Lara to half-seduce him, and then messily battles and stabs him all over Lara’s den of kinky assignations. But mostly, these scenes simply announce themselves as bloody set-pieces.

 By the time Vaughn is sloppily strangled in his therapy room and Bishop and Steve hurl themselves, on cables, off the skyscraper roof, bullets raining around them, we know that no professional killer or “mechanic” in his right mind would have planned something like this. Especially a fastidious soul like Statham’s Bishop, who lives in a posh hide-away house and whose classical vinyl collection includes Schubert’s Trio in E-Flat, Opus 100.

Why would a pro hit man, even a secretly sentimental one, want to hook up with a mean little nebbish like Steve? There was a deliberate homo-erotic undercurrent to the 1972 Mechanic, and there’s also some in the 2011 one. But here the killings are so overscaled and orgasmic, that one suspects old-time sex has become as out-of-date in this world as Schubert on a record player. The only “sex” we see is the coitus-far-interruptus between Steve and Lara, and one bout between Bishop and a lithe, athletic hooker. The latter is shot like a bullfight, and the former like a slaughterhouse. Bishop’s climatic payoff, leaving the hooker a big tip, is played as a punch line.

The main difference between the 1972 Mechanic, which I half-liked, and the 2011 one, which I disliked, is that the first film, though it rarely strays from it, obviously portrays its world as a deviant (if powerful) one, while the second one acts as if its criminal world has become some kind of evil norm (and, in movies, it has), that the old “straight” world, or even the world of the cops, has become almost irrelevant. (The second Mechanic also blows the ending.)

Statham is seemingly working in his usual sensitive thug metier, but he sometimes looks as if he couldn’t wait to get out of this life, this movie. I agree. I found this new Mechanic deeply unpleasant, slick but unentertaining, fast but empty (except for Schubert). And the movie’s fancy, over-rich, over-composed visual style — which some critics have praised — is a lot of what makes it seem so hollow and dead.

 And I was surprised to see that the new Mechanic was the work of the two sometimes great producers who produced the first one, Chartoff and Winkler (Raging Bull, New York, New York, Rocky, The Right Stuff, Round Midnight, Goodfellas), much less that it was a 17 year labor-of-whatever. It’s a mystery. Why would you work so hard to get something made and then hand it over to a director like Simon West, who’s still never surpassed Con Air?

God, I wish it were 1972, when moviemakers wanted to do more than just make a killing, when they wanted to make great movies, tell great human classic stories, and sometimes did, when the pictures seemed alive and vibrant, and not bloody, bad and lifeless, and, what’s the word?


Extras: Deleted scenes.

Blue Valentine (Three Stars)
U.S.: Derek Cianfrance, 2010 (Weinstein Company/Anchor Bay)
An uncompromising drama about a busted romance, told in two alternating story-tracks: one where the couple (Ryan Gosling and the somewhat higher-class Michelle Williams) first come together, one where they finally split apart. The subject of some idiotic MPAA controversy about sex, this a real moviemaker’s showcase for newcomer Derek Cianfrance, and an actors’ showcase for Gosling and Williams, who burn up the screen. With their acting. As for the sex, isn’t that what most couples do? 

Extras: Commentary; Deleted scenes; Featurette; Home movies.

No Strings Attached (One and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Ivan Reitman, 2010 (DreamWorks Video)

 A movie critic friend of mine wrote me the other day that my review of Ben Stiller’s and Robert De Niro’s Little Fockers should have ended right after the first sentence. Thus: “After rambling on and on about the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, I wonder if there’s any real need to say anything at all about Little Fockers  except just this: This movie is not funny.”

Well, I’ve got a second chance to follow his advice, thanks to director Ivan Reitman and his mystifyingly unentertaining (to me) so-called romantic comedy, No Strings Attached, starring the unchemical couple of Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, doing a sort of cross between Last Tango In Paris (sex without mush)  and When Harry Met Sally (friendship and sex) and Mutt and Jeff (the long and the short and the tall).

Here goes: There’s no need to say anything about No Strings Attached except this: It ain’t funny. It ain’t sexy. It looks like it was shot in a permanent smog attack. And what a criminal waste of Kevin Kline.

There, that’s already more than I should have said. But I’ll add this: I think I’d rather walk all the Way Back from from Siberia to Tibet than watch this movie again.

Extras: Commentary by Ivan Reitmen; Featurette; Deleted scenes; Alternate storyline scenes.

The Usual Suspects (Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Bryan Singer, 1995 (MGM)

Director Bryan Singer’s and writer Chris McQuarrie’s twisty neo-noir heist movie borrows Claude Rains‘ great Casablanca line and often gets the cynical, violently hip mood of the classic noirs as well, along with a surprise ending that rocks this world. Kevin Spacey won an Oscar as the squealer; his fellow suspects and cops include Chazz Palminteri, Gabriel Byrne, mumblin’ Benicio Del Toro, Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollak, Giancarlo Esposito and Pete Postlethwaite.


“Alien“ (Blu-Ray) (Four Stars)

U.S.: Ridley Scott, 1979 (Twentieth Century Fox)

The astronauts aboard the starship “Nostromo” — including the seemingly indestructible Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) — run into a horrendous and all but unkillable space monster. And since the first movie, directed by Ridley Scott, became a big hit and modern classic, the monsters, if not the “Nostromo” (or Jospeh Conrad) kept coming back. So did Ripley. This is one of the most visually spectacular, tense, horrific, and thrilling of all science fiction series, with two of the most visually compelling of all science fiction antagonists (Weaver as Ripley, and the Aliens).

The first movie also has the best supporting cast: Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright and John Hurt (who lends his torso to one of the scariest moments in movie history). Score by Jerry Goldsmith; script by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Walter Hill produced.

Aliens (Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: James Cameron, 1986 (Twentieth Century Fox)

 This one, played for maximum shock and thrills by Cameron, has S.W., Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen. Ripley goes looking for Aliens again. She finds them. Not as good or dramatic as the first picture, it’s still one of the most continuously exciting, step-on-the-gas and slam-you-to-the-wall movie roller-coaster rides ever. Score by James Horner; script by O’Bannon, Shusett and others. 

Alien3 (Blu-ray) (Three Stars)

U.S.: David Fincher, 1992 (Twentieth Century Fox)

Ripley on a prison planet. Guess who shows up. Fincher’s first big blast.  With S. W., Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Henriksen and Pete Postlethwaite.

Alien Resurrection (Blu-ray) (Three Stars)

 U.S.: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997 (Twentieth Century Fox)

  Ripley clone and young Ryder run into some old friends. God damn, they’re hard to kill. With S. W. (or her clone), Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman, Brad Dourif, Dan Hedaya and Dominique Pinon.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon