Americans have always rooted for heroes with a touch of the exotic, adopting stars from such far-flung locales as Austria (Schwarzenegger), Belgium (Van Damme), and New Jersey (Willis). But oddly, the U.K. was largely underrepresented in the guts n’ gunplay genre until the arrival of taciturn bruiser Jason Statham. Since his debut in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in 1998, the 43-year-old former model has become one of the last bankable action stars in the world and can be depended on to churn out an average of two modestly-budgeted and comically brutal killstravaganzas a year that are a near guarantee to make a healthy global profit; The Mechanic - which opens today - is the first of at least three films for 2011. All this despite the fact that most Americans don’t know how to pronounce his last name and that his on-screen dialogue often consists of a series of low-decibel grunts and quips.
However, most action-star careers are cruelly short-lived: For every Bronson who went out swinging, there are a half-dozen or so Seagals and Diesels who burn brightly but quickly become disposable jokes and stars of "exclusive" DVDs. Few actors today have both the roundhouse-kick skills and the wink-smirk smarts needed to make those Crank movies so asininely entertaining, but is that enough to build a long career on? Vulture assembled a panel of Hollywood insiders to help determine Statham’s market value: Buy, sell, or hold?
STOCK HISTORY: An accomplished diver and martial-arts wiz, Statham was discovered by British director Guy Ritchie, who gave him a pair of quick but catchy parts in Lock, Stock and 2000’s Snatch. Though the scene-eating Vinnie Jones was originally tipped as those films’ breakout, it was the (relatively) low-key Statham who became the star, landing his first headlining gig with 2002’s The Transporter and its two sequels. All were made with foreign money (and not that much of it) and made most of their money overseas, taking in, sequentially, $43.9, $85.2, and then $109 million worldwide. Fox did a negative pickup, distributing and promoting them in the U.S. for a fee, getting themselves a nice chunk of the U.S. grosses with little risk. Just as the Transporter series was seemingly running out of steam, Statham enlisted himself in yet another over-the-top series, with 2006’s Crank and 2009’s Crank: High Voltage proving he had a sense of humor to go along with all the squint-squint, bang-bang. The low-budget formula worked again: Crank cost $12 million to make, and grossed $43 million globally. (High Voltage was less successful, landing $34.6 million.) No massive sets or CGI needed for these films: just Statham, a car, and different objects to plunge into his enemies's heads.
He's been recruited for the occasional ensemble piece, for which he's seen his biggest career grosses: 2003’s remake of The Italian Job ($176.1 million) and last year's The Expendables ($274.5 million). He can't take sole credit for them, but they help expand his exposure, making more moveigoers say, "Hmmm, perhaps I'm more intrigued than I thought to see a movie called Death Race."
MARKET VALUE: Statham's current quote is $8 million, a healthy payday, but one he earns. He has a successful formula and he's sticking with it, as evidenced by the loglines to his likely 2011 releases. The Mechanic: "An elite man teaches his trade to an apprentice who has a connection to one of his previous victims." Blitz: "A tough cop is dispatched to take down a serial killer who has been targeting police officers." The Killer Elite: "A former Navy Seal is forced out of retirement in order to save his friend." In summary, "Killsy killsy kill kill splat." (He also does a voice in Gnomeo & Juliet, which one would hope veers from the formula a bit.)
PEERS: Though he’s considered a rung down from fellow fortysomethings Eric Bana and Gerard Butler — or, more recently, fellow Brit Tom Hardy -the good news for Statham is that there are only a handful of stars vying to get shot at these days, a group that includes Jet Li and Paul Walker.
WHAT HOLLYWOOD THINKS: “He's a throwback to Schwarzenegger and Stallone in their prime,” says one agent, pointing out Statham’s extraordinary (and extraordinarily valuable) overseas following. The problem is, Hollywood studios aren't bankrolling many of those kinds of $20 million action films anymore; they'll either do a giant blockbuster or they'll just distribute a finished film for a fee and save themselves the hassle. "He's able to manipulate those foreign-driven, presale movies and get the payday," says the agent. "It feels like it’s all about the payday right now, and that he's not interested in taking less just to have a 'Hollywood' career. Transporter, Mechanic, those are all negative pick-ups; no studio would ever make those movies today. But he's cornered a specific market." Plus,the agent adds, he's not yet branded himself as a major American star: “In middle America, I don’t know a lot of people know who he is.” A manager who praises Statham’s acting chops says that more options will come if he diversifies his portfolio with some smaller roles with bigger directors. “I'd try and put him in The Hangover 2,” the manager says. “A 180-degree turn, like what The Rock did with The Pacifier Does he do a Kindergarten Cop, or a Twins? That would broaden him out. Has he sat down with Brian Grazer? With Judd Apatow? With Todd Phillips?” [As our readers have pointed out, it was Vin Diesel who did The Pacifier.] The manager adds that he's talented enough that good directors would meet with him; it may not result in a lead role, but it would land him in a prestigious project that could show his range. “A fourth lead in a Scorsese movie — is there a role like that?” the manager asks. “Get him with filmmakers who aren't action guys.”
THE ANALYSIS: Though Statham has yet to emerge with a fully fledged on-screen persona, that might be to his advantage: Unlike most ‘80s action stars — who’d been quickly reduced to easy parody by the end of the Reagan era — Statham has yet to be pigeonholed, meaning he could probably try anything at this point. And even when he’s beating guys to a pulp, he exudes a certain let’s-grab-a-pint likeability (maybe it’s the accent). He's intense but you never get the sense he's taking his movies too seriously; with his bullet head, he's reminiscent of Bruce Willis, who put a similar winking spin on the action hero, and was able to steer himself into dramatic and quirky roles with interesting directors like Quentin Tarantino and Brian de Palma. If Statham doesn't want to veer too far from action, then we could see him carving out his own smart-spy territory, the way Matt Damon did with the Bourne series. (He’s hinted at the past at wanting to play Bond, though it’d probably take a laser-beam to the crotch to get Daniel Craig to cede that role.) But even if he just wants to stay put, throwing the same punches as ever, barring him developing a Seagal-like double chin or a Van Damme-ian messiah complex, he should be just fine.
BOTTOM LINE: There may not be a huge market for no-nonsense action stars nowadays, but he’s the best at what he does, and the only rock-hard "man's man" out there. (Shia LaBeouf as the next Indiana Jones? Really?) And he’s young enough to keep getting smacked around for the next decade or so without losing his diehard fans. But what really stands out is Statham’s sheer potential: Studios are rooting for him, and he’s a broad-shouldered charmer who’s proved he can play well with others, and exhibits some (admittedly subtle) comedic chops. Maybe he can even dance. No matter what, it’s a good bet his best performance is yet to come.