“It was an antique,” West said.
After 17 years of trying to bring the pivotal 1972 Charles Bronson hit-man epic back to the screen – and after countless rewrites that took its quasi-Shakespearean, father-son revenge story in every possible direction – producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff had gone back to square one: Lewis John Carlino’s original screenplay.
When “The Mechanic” hits theaters today, it won’t be the same movie, of course. Writer Richard Wenk has updated the story by Carlino (“The Great Santini”) with contemporary villains and a more existential slant.
Standing in for Bronson, a ’70s box-office magnet who died in 2003, is action idol Jason Statham.
Statham, whose career has included the “Transporter” films, “The Expendables” and “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” seems a likely heir apparent to the Bronson mantle of tight-lipped, hair-trigger movie machismo.
But what does a nearly four-decade-old movie mean to audiences now?
“They tell us that when we screen this film, 99 percent of the people seeing it will have never seen the original or even know who Bronson is,” says West.
But he thinks Statham is capable of repeating history.
“I think Jason is the new Bronson,” West says, “and will go on to world domination because there are so few guys who can do this kind of thing legitimately, or are willing to do it. … And the older he gets, the better he gets.”
Like Bronson, Statham plays Arthur Bishop, a contract killer with very particular tastes – Schubert on vinyl, a vintage Jaguar XKE in his garage – and no particular interest in whom he kills or why. That is, until he has to kill his only friend, Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland).
Confronted by Harry’s estranged son, Steve (Ben Foster), Arthur, prompted by guilt, takes on the younger man as an apprentice angel of death, setting the stage for a riot of action.
Statham says there is less in Wenk’s new script about who is orchestrating the various killings and why, and greater emphasis on the characters.
“It’s more about the son and his desire for revenge,” he says, “and about my guilt, and me setting this kid up in a position to exact revenge.
“Will he find out it’s me? Do I want him to know? Do I know that he knows? It’s pretty cool.”
So is Statham, at least regarding the Bronson legacy.
“It’s always going to be compared to the original,” he says of the remake. “You can’t fill the Charles Bronson boots, so I wasn’t going to try to do something that was unachievable.
“The movie’s definitely been changed for today’s audiences, and there’s a lot of different feel to it.”
Even so, says Wenk, “We’ve seen a thousand hit-men movies since ‘The Mechanic,’ and they’ve done it every which way. But no one’s really explored the same themes.”
Those include the guilt, revenge and father-son/mentor-apprentice aspects of the original film, which featured Jan-Michael Vincent in the Foster role.
What Wenk did, mainly, was reimagine “The Mechanic’s” famously silent opening, and update the villain/victims – notably Vaughn (John McConnell), a debauched evangelical whose doctor keeps him high on drugs.
The suggestion of various contemporary figures, including Michael Jackson, seems unavoidable.
On set, director West says, the doctor character was referred to as Dr. X, “and that was definitely a reference to Jackson’s doctor.
“But you can’t help but let contemporary things come in, but not in an overt way. It just seeps in when you’re coming up with ideas. A cult leader making tons of money seemed an odious character, a particularly modern bad guy.
“When you’re dealing with a 40-year-old movie,” he adds, “you have to say, ‘Who today would be the bad guys?’ And, y’know, just read the paper.”