Fourteen years ago, director Simon West got his big break from mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who gave the 36-year-old Englishman the reins for the over-the-top, big-budget action flick Con Air. Fortunately, time has mellowed the director a bit, to the point where his latest, The Mechanic, is much more polished and restrained. The result is a movie that (while still delivering frenetic fight scenes and bloody shoot-outs) never veers into cheesy territory and instead stays much closer to the winning formula found in The Bourne Identity series.

Jason Statham (The Expendables) is Arthur Bishop, a super-cool, super-stoic hitman who can plan an assassination with a level of detail and precision that boggles the mind. Before he even speaks his first lines, he’s infiltrated the high-security compound of a Columbian drug kingpin, killed him, made it look like a drowning, and vanished. “Pulling a trigger is easy,” he later says. “On the best jobs, no one even knows you were there.”

The thing is, he works alone. So when he’s forced to take on a partner (due to one of the script’s most egregious head-scratchers), things get more than a little messy. Steve (Ben Foster, The Messenger) is the son of Arthur’s mentor. He’s a loose cannon, a young punk who smokes too much, drinks too much, and is always looking for a fight. Arthur trains Steve in the subtle yet highly effective methods required for the job, and, in one of The Mechanic‘s best sequences, they alternate between loud, destructive target practice with heavy artillery and perfecting the quiet, calm strategies needed to finish jobs right.

Statham is pitch-perfect in his role, barely curling his lip into a half-smile occasionally, never moving at anything faster than a deliberate walk, and never raising his voice above a guttural whisper. It’s a perfect contrast to Foster, who, in one scene decides he’d rather try to take out a 350-pound giant with hand-to-hand combat instead of just quietly slipping him a mickey. The two men enjoy a strange but effective chemistry, and while neither is especially likeable, you can’t help but find yourself rooting for them throughout most of the movie.

The screenplay by Richard Wenk (16 Blocks) and Lewis John Carlino (who also wrote the 1972 original, starring Charles Bronson) is a fun, well-crafted exercise in less-is-more. The dialogue is kept to a minimum, and the story itself, though feeling a bit clich├ęd in parts, more than holds your interest. West wisely saw the screenplay as a chance to intersperse a solid story with some big, brutal action scenes, instead of the other way around. And the camerawork is cleverly done, particularly during a slam-bang fight between Arthur and one of his old associates on an empty airport shuttle bus.

Kudos also go to the fun supporting work by Donald Sutherland as Arthur’s mentor, and by Tony Goldwyn, who picks up right where his slimy character from Ghost left off.

What The Mechanic lacks in Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer-esque glitz, it makes up for with an interesting story, great characters, and even a nice little twist at the end. I’d make that trade any day of the week.

3.5/5 stars