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March 4, 2008

The Bank of Jason Statham

Mulling a future in which a prolific action hero demands dramatic reckoning

Get a Job: Jason Statham at Monday night's Cinema Society premiere of The Bank Job (Photo: Getty Images)

I want to see Jason Statham break out. Like really break out: Get rid of the suits and the cultivated stubble and all the standard action-hero accoutrements and tough-guy self-consciousness and do something totally fucked up and unexpected and philosophical. Maybe play a war journalist in Iraq who witnesses an atrocity or a gay college librarian in love with his work-study assistant or a morally ambiguous bank robber caught up in a royal scandal.

Wait, sorry. You can cross the last one off the list -- sort of. His portrayal of working-class London ex-con Terry Leather in his latest film, The Bank Job (opening Friday in New York), features the ex-diver and perennial fashion plate in yet another implacably swaggering, stylish turn, mitigated by ebbs of vulnerability thought lost after 2005's oddly compelling New York soap flopera London. Connected to his past via shady go-betweens and a romantic interest (Saffron Burrows) who, in a troublesome bit of character development, isn't his beloved wife, Terry has seemingly every resource and nuance but multisyllablic words going for him. Unless you count "bollocks," of course, which I do not.

I'm oversimplifying, but only to the extent that Statham proscribes his own range. "It's nice to branch out," he told me at last night's Cinema Society premiere of The Bank Job. "I don't want to put the same record on the record player. People get too tired of that; it's like eating the same food for dinner every day. It gets bland. For the sake of my own interests and the sake of expanding on my ability as an actor, I want to do roles like this and roles like London but not forget the bread and butter for me and the stuff that plays to a different strength of mine. That's the action genre, and I love that, and I've always loved it."

Indeed, his action chops have now boosted franchises (The Transporter and Crank, the third and second installments of which are forthcoming), remakes (The Italian Job, Death Race) and Dr. Uwe Boll's recent bomb In the Name of the King. But even his most choreographed, gear-headed experiments in kinesis yield a soul beyond irony; he is achingly sincere at any speed. Holding forth as the ringleader of a schlubby quintet commissioned by slinky Martine Love (Burrows), herself the inside gal of an (evidently true) MI5 conspiracy in 1971 to recoup incriminating pictures of a particularly frolicsome English royal in flagrante delicto with black militant Michael X (Peter De Jersey), Statham might not really convince you he knows ideal blokes who can dig tunnels under the targeted vault on Baker Street or class up the entire operation. He does, however, channel the very real ruthlessness of dreams, sacrificing one colleague and risking another's life in the pursuit of a postwar proletarian idyll that involves getting the hell out of London with his wife and two girls. With whom, naturally, he also jeopardizes his relationship with haunted, knowing foolishness.

Digging in: Daniel Mays and Jason Statham in The Bank Job (Photo: Lionsgate)

That's the postmodern action hero -- the Martin Riggses and John McClanes and even Bruce Waynes of the world, whose survivors' senses of justice are ultimately little more than mythic permutations of class, era and politics. I would hesitate adding Terry Leather to this canon (he's not a charismatic enough showcase), but not in adding Jason Statham to the short list of actors who can and should be attempting to pull these characters off. In a way, he has already done so with Transporter's veteran-turned- conscience-stricken mercenary Frank Martin; even the sequelized attenuation of the franchise doesn't nearly rival the unalloyed stupidity of Crank, War or the Boll abortion. For all its canted angles and B-movie banter, The Bank Job loans unprecedented social context to a Statham tough guy.

Asked about the actor's range and ensemble work, Bank Job director Roger Donaldson was... coy? Reserved? Modest? "I can only say I'm impressed," he told The Reeler. "He's got the physique and the talent to be an action actor as well do some nice straight acting work. He's working with the very best England has to offer, and I think that speaks very highly of what his future is." Statham himself effused about working alongside Ian McShane in Death Race. "For me, it's like stepping up to the big leagues," he said. "Same with Joan Allen, who plays the cold, calculating bitch that runs the prison. She's a three-time Oscar nominee! To work in that caliber is like... fuck. It's a massive opportunity. Basically, you get with people at that level and it becomes so much easier because they're so good. You think you'd be intimidated, but they bring the best out of you. I just hope I get to do more stuff with more great actors."

At this point, though, it means bringing the McShanes and Allens to him -- not the other way around, and not even necessarily meeting them halfway. "I've grown up as a big fan of action movies," Statham said. "Just to throw that to the wayside for the sake of wanting to do something different would be a stupid move. If I can create some sort of a balance between action movies that I love and do something a bit more dramatically challenging like this, then I'll be happy." All right, fine. At least gain some weight for a role. Play a mailman. Wear hideous makeup. Do comedy. If you must perform your own stunts, ride a horse or maybe go make a combat drama. You've robbed, killed, maimed and flailed for them. Make the next one for you. Or at least for me.



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