Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

The Action Icon Gauntlet: Statham

Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, Statham, The Rock. January and February will see new releases from these titans of action cinema on a near-weekly basis. In The Action Icon Gauntlet, Jeremiah will evaluate their performances and rank their icon standing based on box office take, critical reception and personal bias.

Don't mess with Texcuador.

The Modern Icon

As far as I can tell, Jason Statham is Hollywood’s only modern action icon. No one else in the last 15-20 years has risen to prominence almost entirely by starring in action movies. There are serious actors who dabble (Matt Damon, Jeremy Renner). There are beefcakes who sometimes play men of action (Channing Tatum, Gerard Butler). There are cult stars (Michael Jai White, Scott Adkins). There are overseas stars who are known in the states (Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais). But none of them have had the kind of consistent and distinct action movie presence in the new millennium that Statham has.

What is that presence? Bland, stoic martial arts-ish violence. In a recent Commentary Tracks of the Damned installment, when mocking Safe's attempt to showcase Statham's vulnerable side, Nathan Rabin refers to him as a “human fist”. It’s an apt description for the man whose breakout action vehicle, The Transporter, set him to plowing through video game-esque waves of henchmen in elaborate, contrived fight scenes. Statham’s reign as action king stands in stark, silent contrast to that of the wisecracking heroes of decades past. Statham doesn’t tell jokes. Statham doesn’t smile. Statham beats the crap out of people, sometimes while sliding around in motor oil.

Statham’s very appearance, eerily uniform from movie to movie, speaks to this purity of purpose. His tan features and muscular form appear to have been chiseled from a single desert boulder. His skin is stretched tight over a frame unadorned by frivolous vanities like human hair; Statham eschews all that does not aid in the kicking of asses. The light dusting of bristly stubble that covers roughly 95% of his body looks like a defense mechanism as much as a personal grooming choice. In his academic exploration of action movies, Action Speaks Louder, Eric Lichtenfeld claims that characters like the T-100 and Marion Cobretti among others dress in black from head to toe to evoke an “emotional and even physical impregnability.” Jason Statham accomplishes the same thing just by showing up.

In the Name of the False King: A Dungeon Siege Tale

Being America’s preeminent action star has not translated to much critical or commercial success for Statham (super heroes and spies have pushed pure genre fare to the fringe in the new century). The only two action movies he headlines that have a Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes are the Crank movies. The Expendables 2 does as well, where Statham’s role is drastically reduced from the original in favor of more Willis and Schwarzenegger. On the other hand, his only vehicle to top a measly $40 million is Transporter 2. The Expendables movies made $103 million and $85 million. Clearly, Statham has his greatest successes only when his presence bolsters some sort of action movie curiosity: the over-choreographed fight scenes of The Transporter, the amped-up insanity of Crank, the aging names far more famous than himself in The Expendables 2. Judging by Parker’s lackluster performance in both categories, Jennifer Lopez’s recently divorced, down-on-her-luck real estate agent doesn’t qualify.

The World's Most Dangerous Game - Real Estate

If you removed the portions of Parker that center on Statham and Lopez engaging in low-stakes Florida real estate intrigue (like lifting a post-it from a rival real estate agent's desk), it would be a slightly sub-par Statham outing. It would also be like 40 minutes long instead of 120. As is, Parker is much worse than sub-par.  After a serviceable heist and a tense shootout inside a moving SUV, Parker bounces around the country before settling in Palm Beach, where Statham poses as a rich, Ecuadorian-born Texan in the market for a new house in order to track down his enemies. It's like a conman romantic comedy except that it’s not funny and there’s 0 chemistry between Statham and Lopez. Oh, also, there’s kind of a love triangle. In a Jason Statham action movie. It’s boring, features very little action worth mentioning, and manages to make the specifics of its own plot completely irrelevant. Having the protagonist wait around for other people to steal something so he can steal it from them creates an interesting dynamic, but when the good guy knows almost nothing about his rival’s plans (which are pretty dumb to begin with) and does little preparation of his own, then we’re all just kind of waiting around for an underwhelming heist to go down so we can get on with our lives.

Walker Porter Parker

Parker is based on Parker the literary character. He’s been featured in a bunch of films (though this is the first time he’s actually been called “Parker”) but Point Blank and Payback are the titles getting thrown around the most in relation to Parker's release. There are two reasons for this. First, these are the most well known adaptations. Second, both Point Blank and Payback are based on the first Parker novel, The Hunter. The meat of Parker's Palm Beach jewelry heist plot is actually taken from a different book, but the whole “double-crossed and left for dead” thing is from The Hunter (or else this happens an awful lot to Parker). Parker doesn’t lend itself to comparisons with the other two because the plots are so different, but there is one detail that struck me.

In Payback, it’s sort of a running gag that Mel Gibson wants the money he is owed, and only the money he is owed. He seems insulted when he’s offered more. I’m sure this is supposed to show the character’s “honor among thieves” mentality or personal code or whatever. That’s fine, it’s good to have principles. But mostly it’s a source of humor. In Parker, when Statham is offered more money from someone who had nothing to do with his betrayal, he refuses it and then goes on a philosophical rant. He reasons that if he allows people to get away with not honoring their agreements, he invites chaos into his life. Right, and waging a one-man war on some thieves with organized crime backing is the path to serenity. Gibson was dangerously stubborn for the sake of entertainment, Statham actually thinks he’s being logical. If you want to restore order to your life, just take a bath on this one and move on.

Why Bother?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Parker completely wastes a cast that includes Michael Chiklis, Wendell Pierce, Clifton Collins Jr., Bobby Cannavale and Nick Nolte. That’s representatives of The Shield (x2), The Wire, Boardwalk Empire and Luck. That’s a cable drama dream team right there! Good for them all collecting a paycheck. Too bad they didn't have to do anything for them.


Statham might need a hug after this past weekend.


Opening weekend: $7 million

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 37/46

Best Line: Parker is threatening to crush a guy’s trachea with the bar stool he has pressed against his throat. “Trust me, it's agonizing. And then there's the posthumous humiliation of being killed by a chair.” (Parker does not distinguish between chairs and stools because he’s not a pussy)

Best Kill: So Parker and this master mafia assassin who apparently only carries a knife are doing the thing where the guy is trying to stab Parker and Parker is holding his arm and staring at the blade. Then, in a brilliant bit of masochistic improvisation, Parker holds up his hand as the blade goes right through using the Scorpion CGI from Mortal Kombat. With the weapon neutralized, Parker tackles the guy off the hotel balcony where they both hang until Parker kicks him in the face sending him to his death, all with the knife still sticking through his palm.



1. Schwarzenegger

2. Statham

Analysis: Statham would have needed an extremely strong showing to overtake Schwarzenegger considering the disparity in their careers up to this point. Instead, Parker beats The Last Stand by less than $1 million at the box office and loses both critical measurements by a significant margin. Statham might be a big action star now, but Schwarzenegger was a huge action star back when that actually meant something. Also, I wish I'd gone to The Last Stand again instead of sitting through Parker.


Next Up: Sylvester Stallone resurrects buddy action in Walter Hill’s Bullet to the Head.

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