Couple things wrong with Hanna. No movie seen since more recalls Black Swan. Strengths similar. Strong central performance intersects ostentatious directorial style. Former never wavers, latter offers bursts of visual pleasure—e.g., prison-suited Saoirse Ronan escaping evil subterranean complex with pinpoint pistolry through pulsating flourescent light à la Goldeneye on N64, with the Chemical Brothers’ tribal electro jizz giving it to you in the ear. Or over the hodgepodge of land-, ethno-, aestheti-scapes the undisciplined script leapfrogs—Nordic forest pocked with ice floes dancing Wes Andersonianly, X-Files-ish Moroccan desert, Syriana-style city-state on eve of generic Arabian reverie, dueñde-eyed Flamenco dancers (whose feet we never see…) clapping in the glow of a bonfire—but like Black Swan, or the actioner of yore Hanna sadly most reminded me of, Boondock Saints, the overdosing on slow-motion, cheesy outfits, inorganic battles, and plotting discontinuity reduces our portrait of the titular naïf and her struggles to an excuse to peacock Joe Wright’s directorial tailfeathers. We can give Wright an “A” for effort—trying to hoist the genre out of a swamp sticky with little else but the buttsweat of Jason Statham—but as bad poetry repeatedly teaches us, a high-gloss literary stylism is no panacea, and often ends up offending us more than things that are meaningless, nakedly.
Cate Blanchett’s evil stepmother isn’t scary enough. One problem common to all bad action movies, no matter who they star or how florid their mise-en-scène: we never actually fear for our main character. I don’t think this is a difficult problem to solve. You don’t do it by weakening your hero. You strengthen your villain. If the big bad wolf is actually a big bad wolf, and little red riding hood defeats her, as we knew she would, that can still thrill us, especially if we don’t know—or can’t imagine given a set of seemingly incredible odds—how the inevitable reversal will be architected. But if the big bad wolf is just one woman with a gun stomping bureaucratically around in “scary forest green” half-inch heels, and little red riding hood is a genetically-engineered badass who has already effortlessly slaughtered a small army of armed guards in a high-security compound controlled by the CIA ten stories beneath the Moroccan desert, it’s hard for me to fear for her life. It’s hard for the endless chase scenes that power-fuck their way through Hanna to transcend routine. The only times I really sense Hanna’s humanity is when she adopts herself into a normal family of British travelers and almost has her first kiss, makes her first friend, and experiences adolescent intimacy’s sweet sting. I wish this would’ve been more of the movie. Or I wish the obligatory action orgy that gobbled it up would’ve had even a glint of equivalent ambiguity.
Like a multiple personality disordered general, the finest escapist fare employs its best battalion to war with its premier platoon. At once presenting audiences with the chance to sip of the lethe of ludicrousness, a rock-solid slab of escapism will also subtly expose that audience’s deepest, most penetratingly collective fears. Like Battle: Los Angeles, for example. We’ve seen some version of this preview a few times now, watching it grow from its initial larvae of just that spooky electronic warble hauntingly overlaying random scenes of mayhem, to a fully-developed trailer in which we find not only Jennifer Rodriguez but also Aaron Eckhart facing down swarms of aliens at once technologically superior and anatomically disgustinger than earthlings. This movie is obviously going to be good and obviously about America’s anxiety over China. It will probably be so good that its deeper motives actually flavor the whole, dressing its bland salad of generic conventions with the subtlest vinaigrette of reality: we may actually care whether Bridget Moynahan makes it to that helicopter alive, like we may at some point actually have to care that China’s stopped financing our gargantuan debt, is living on coal and coal alone, and owns half of Africa.
The not-so-finest products of escapism, on the other hand, just kind of slouch around, like a sulky, C-student teen riddled with childhood obesity and early on-set diabetes. Pair that vision with its balding, pot-bellied father, and you have the target audience for The Mechanic. And just to make sure you know you’re in the right wrong place, the movie unfurls a graphic, totally unnecessary sex scene with Jason Statham and a hot prostitute 10 minutes in. Like Statham’s incredibly “helpful” voice-over explaining just what he as “a mechanic” does, it is gratuitous flag-waving that will never happen again. Ben Foster is in this movie, and though he both rages and cries—as he is contractually obligated to do in all his films—he cannot fully inhabit a role whose character is meant to be coterminous with action, and whose action is only occasionally coterminous with interesting. But when it is interesting: wow. This movie has some great violence in it: screwdriver stabbings, garbage disposals, an enormous angry gay hit man, the handle of those wheeler suitcases grafted onto spikes, blood splatter that actually looked real…wonderful! Unfortunately there wasn’t nearly enough of it. The violence sat like a fleeting rainbow on the oil spot of The Mechanic when what we really want from movies of this ilk is a coursing, roiling, killingly unholy thing in which we are totally and fundamentally complicit: the Spill.
The Mechanic is a great movie about assassins. One word in the preceding sentence is untrue. I don’t remember much of it, and the more I try to think about it, the more I forget. In that way, The Mechanic is nothing like love. The more you think about it, the more you remember it. And the more you try not to think about it, the more you remember it. And soon the memories swallow you. They swallow thought, they swallow sound, and their images become larger than the apparatus of analysis can bear. They become your spiritual porn. That’s when you act, and run back to them, and slide into home on your knees. They give you your you had me at hello, and you give them your you complete me. Memory ends, and moment explodes. Until then the beautiful dreams will continue to pass through you while you sleep, dispersing to the bleat of your alarm clock, coloring the rest of your morning an aching neon, propelling your path of self-destruction through the night, gluing your soul to the past. The bigger the hole gets, the more you need the images to fill it, the more elaborate they grow—they branch, they fructify—and thus become the more impossible to attain, missiles impossible to aim, creating even larger ripples of letdown when you fail to realize them, creating a larger hole, producing ever more beautiful and ever more false fantasies. But to others—and here empathy works its cruel miracle—those images will seem not only real, but necessary, as if having cascaded from the highest precipices of meaning. So you look into their eyes and observe how happy they are, clutching the life-preserver the cycles of your misery has flung them. And briefly you are heartened by their smiles—those physical facts—or the tears in their eyes. They will go home to their husbands or wives or computers and resume their grueling uncinematic routines, but a little lighter in the chest for believing there is a transcendent possibility somewhere out there—while you drown in withoutness, praying for the courage to get up, for the courage to act in the name of love instead of merely play chemistry set with its rhetoric, knowing this inaction has always been the furnace of your allure, the fuel of imagination. No word in the preceding sentence is untrue.
“I’m putting a price on your head so big that when you look in the mirror, your reflection is going want to shoot you in the face!” Thus the villain in The Mechanic shouts over the phone to Jason Statham. Read it again. Marilyn Monroe wasn’t in this movie because she’s dead, but she said, “If you can make a girl laugh, you can make her do anything.” Dashing English poet and possible ancestor of Jason Statham, Robert Browning, said, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” Jesus Christ, Divine Assassin of Sin, opens his sermon on the mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Either Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, both of whom I consider to be the Ben Foster of the Founding Fathers, once said something whose exact words I can’t remember, but the gist of it was, “Our parents were farmers so that we might become statesmen, and we are statesmen so that our children might become philosophers and artists.” Adolph Hitler, failed artist, amateur philosopher, and the reigning image of evil in the modern mind, Kamph’ed, “A man does not die for something which he himself does not believe in.” So much truth is out there, swirling around The Mechanic. So little was in it. Werner Stipetić, too poetic to be anything but a beautiful failure as a filmmaker, changed his surname to Herzog, German for duke, in order to protect himself from what he called the unyieleding evil of the universe. “There is a dormant brother inside of you, and I awaken him, I make him speak, and you are not alone anymore,” Herzog said in a recent interview. Some of the violence is creative, and gleefully echoes Con Air, which Simon West also directed, but the rest of The Mechanic is nihilistic, pointless, and sloppy. Life is a wedding dress stuffed into a thimble.