By Nate Freiberg

Though his star has never risen to the heights of a Bruce Willis or an Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham has nonetheless carried a steady diet of action films the last decade, continually producing solid, reliable material for fans of the genre. Whether it be in balls-to-the wall shoot-’em-ups like the Transporter and Crank franchises or crime-based British fare like Snatch or The Bank Heist, Statham has combined his tough, kick-ass on-screen persona with charismatic humor to great effect.

That’s what, in part, makes his latest outing – Simon West’s remake of the 1972 Charles Bronson vehicle The Mechanic – so disappointing. Statham handles the movie’s action scenes well as always, but you won’t find many moments of comic relief here. That’s because the film is too bogged down by its overtly serious tone that it often loses sight of its principal goal – entertaining the viewer.

Statham plays Arthur Bishop, a hit man or “mechanic” who doesn’t just assassinate people, but leaves no trace of his presence in doing so. His kills might suggest an alternative method of death or strategically implicate someone else in the process. Carefully living an isolated life of luxury in the wetlands of New Orleans, Bishop is employed by one of those shadowy organizations we learn virtually nothing about. It exists so that Bishop and his fellow assassins have targets to kill. Why must these people be eliminated? The screenplay doesn’t concern us with such details.

Things are going swimmingly for Bishop until he is instructed by Dean – Tony Goldwyn, playing one of Statham’s two handlers – to rub out his other handler for some old-fashioned corporate malfeasance. Only problem is Bishop’s other handler is also his wheelchair-bound mentor and closest friend (Donald Sutherland). In one of the film’s few inventive sequences, he somewhat reluctantly carries out the task, but soon feels responsible for McKenna’s aimless son Steve (Ben Foster), who’s been a lifelong disappointment. Taking on the younger McKenna as an apprentice of sorts, Bishop later discovers – suprise, surprise! – that he has been duped by Dean and sets out to avenge his innocent friend’s death.

The twin planks of betrayal and revenge have been staples in Hollywood films for years, and this won’t be the last time we see them. They are, however, fairly muted here. That’s no fault of West’s, whose direction here is for the most part assured and has ripened since 1997’s Con Air and 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The acting is also stronger than what we might expect to see in a movie like this. Aside from the reliably consistent Statham, Sutherland manages to imbue his character with depth and feeling in his few scenes. And as Sutherland’s son, Foster convincingly delivers the intense emotional volatility that recalls his performance as Russell Crowe’s sidekick in 3:10 to Yuma, though without the outright villainry this time around.

The principal problems with The Mechanic lie with the screenplay — specifically, the plot structure. It isn’t until well past the halfway point that Statham finds out he’s been double-crossed, resulting in a long and aimless middle act in which he tutors Foster. As a specialized killer, Statham relies on the utmost precision and caution in his work, so his somewhat arbitrary decision to take on a loose cannon like Foster strains credulity, particularly after the protégé sloppily bungles one job after another. And while one might think training scenes on how to become an assassin would be interesting, that’s not the case here. Foster’s first target is a 6-foot-7, 300-pound homosexual who has a thing for chihuahuas and results in one of the more boring fights to the death you’ll see on camera.

There’s nothing in The Mechanic that we haven’t seen before – doubly true, of course, since it’s a remake – but the tired, mailed-in plot even robs us of the tepid, escapist thrills we’d usually enjoy in a by-the-numbers revenge film like this. Even Statham fans would do better to watch their DVD copy of Crank a fourth time than seek out this mediocrity, which earns its January release date.