Family, The Fate of the Furious has almost arrived. Get your tickets here!
Deckard Shaw, terrifying renegade special forces assassin, stands in a hospital room, looking down at his brother. Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), a bad dude in his own right, has been left comatose after a run in with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew. Deckard, visibly uncomfortable, sits and talks to his brother:
They say if you want to glimpse the future, just look behind you. I used to think that was bollocks. But now I realize… you can’t outrun the past. When we were kids, you’d start fights with the toughest bastards in the yard. But I was the one who had to step in and finish them. You’d steal from the corner shop, but it was me who’d brave the old man’s belt. I’d hoped you’d outgrown it. That playing the gangster made you harder, smarter, better. But deep down I guess I always knew that you’d end up like this, despite everything I did teach you. Still, you’re my flesh and blood. So you remain my cross to bear. Rest now, little brother, while I settle your one last score.
Vengeance vowed, Deckard leaves Owen with a submachine gun and warns a terrified doctor and nurse to take care of him, lest they give Deckard a reason to return. He strides into the ruins of the hospital, calmly cleaning his sunglasses as he passes by the remains of the heavily armed SWAT team he minced on his way in. It’s a strong introduction for Statham’s turn as a major villain in James Wan’s Furious 7, and it’s a great example of one of my favorite things about his action stardom.
Statham doesn’t often play outright happy characters, and his more dramatic turns tend to be downright sorrowful. But even in his toughest, coolest and most action-centric roles, there is almost always loneliness or regret (Crank’s gleefully amoral, survival-driven Chev Chelios is the big exception). Statham’s characters may be nigh unbeatable in a fight, but they consistently get to be at least a little vulnerable and struggle with themselves. That isn’t always the case with the roles action stars play, and it’s part of what makes Statham fun to watch. He’s a lithe, graceful fighter. He drives and shoots marvelously. He’s got a killer smirk. And there’s always something recognizably human in his performances, even when the movie around him is gloriously absurd.
Returning to Furious 7, there’s a marked contrast in Deckard’s body language between when he’s talking to Owen and when he’s strolling through the remains of the havoc he has wreaked. Sticking an armed grenade to the last surviving SWAT officer whilst quipping “Hold this” is second nature for him. He’s calm, he’s comfortable, he’s even a bit bored given how nonchalantly he cleans his glasses. Statham’s physical grace is on full display in his stride and the ease with which he arms and sticks the grenade. But in the hospital room with his comatose brother? Deckard is plainly uncomfortable. He slouches in his chair. He grimaces, but it’s not a cool Statham grimace. It’s the grimace of a man grappling with the fact that he loves his brother but does not like him. Deckard’s leaving the comatose Owen a submachine gun is simultaneously a prime bit of Fast and Furious goofiness and a marker of how little common ground the brothers share. Deckard isn’t going to target Dom and his extended family because he wants to, he’s going to target them because he has an obligation. And while he will not go about revenge half-heartedly, he does not take joy in it. Deckard is ambivalent, and while Furious 7’s writing lets him down by ultimately treating him more as a persistent obstacle than an arch-foe, Statham’s work during his introduction elevates him past bland villainy.
If Deckard Shaw is ambivalent about his rampage, The Transporter 2’s Frank Martin is both driven and frustrated. In the first Transporter, Frank learned that his commitment to amorality as a getaway driver was being used to further a human trafficking scheme. His conscience awakened, and he proceeded to demolish the trafficking ring. Transporter 2 opens with Frank in an idyll. He’s moved from France to Miami. Rather than working as a getaway driver, he’s chauffeuring a kid named Jack (Hunter Clary) as a favor to his mother Audrey, a friend (Amber Valetta). His formerly fraught relationship with Inspector Tarconi (François Berléand) has developed into a full-blown friendship, one strong enough that Tarconi chooses to use his vacation to visit Frank. When a sleazy Eurotrash villain named Chillini (Alessandro Gasmann) and his sociopathic chief goon Lola (Kate Nauta) kidnap Jack as part of a nefarious scheme to kill many high-ranking international police, Frank proceeds to hunt and subsequently obliterate them. With the villains slain and Jack’s formerly strained family re-united, Frank ends his brief respite from the underworld and returns to transporting full time.
Transporter 2 gives Statham a chance to play warmer than he usually does, primarily through his interactions with Jack and Audrey. His gruff, kind treatment of Jack and his gently turning down a drunk Audrey’s attempt to seduce him stand in stark contrast to his calm, professional relentlessness when under attack by assorted mooks and his open disgust with Chillini and Lola’s wanton disregard for anyone but themselves. These character traits may be longstanding in action hero archetypes, but Statham’s performance deepens them. Working as a chauffeur for a child is not just unusual for Frank, it’s explicitly something that he does not normally do and does not view as a permanent arrangement. He must inevitably return to his criminal lifestyle, and he closes the film doing exactly that. When Statham comes to visit Audrey and Jack in the hospital and sees that they’ve reconciled with her husband and his dad (Matthew Modine), he smiles and chooses to withdraw. Statham’s stride remains normal, and he gives a genuine smile, but there is some regret in his voice. Frank Martin is always going to be a transporter above all else, but he wouldn’t have minded being something else for a little while.
And then there’s Nick Wild. The incredibly named hero of Simon West’s Wild Card (adapted from a novel and earlier film, both called Heat [no relation to Michael Mann’s movie of the same name] by William Goldman of The Princess Bride and All the President’s Men) is a subtly self-destructive gambling addict. He doesn’t binge drink or start fights for validation (and even if he did, Nick Wild is a man who can beat people up with, on separate occasions, a credit card and a butter knife). He’s hardly isolated – if anything, he’s someone everyone in Vegas at least knows of. But he clings to a dream of leaving Vegas for Corsica. Rather than actively pursue that dream, Nick uses it as an excuse to indulge his need to gamble. And when Nick gambles, it isn’t enough for him to win. He needs to keep gambling, keep pushing, until the math catches up. He breaks his friends’ hearts, and he’s breaking himself. Wild isn’t actively suicidal, but his own life and happiness do not mean much to him.
Statham only has a few fights in Wild Card, but they’re strongly choreographed and feature creative weapons and on one occasion, a full-blown Frank Miller Batman leap that is absolutely thrilling. When I think of the movie, and Statham’s performance in it, I think of the moment just before his final battle with Milo Ventimiglia’s oily rapist gangster. As Ventimiglia and his goons search the back of the diner, Statham hides in an alcove, readying the butter knife and spoon he managed to slip out of the building with. He closes his eyes and thinks of Corsica. And as he decides that he wants to live, he tenses. Not in the way that he does earlier in the movie, when he tries to leave a casino with his winnings only to have a panic attack and run back to the table. After playing Wild as a downbeat pessimist, Statham shifts his body language to that of someone who is determined to move forward. When he leaps down into the alley to engage Ventimiglia and his goons, he explodes with an energy that he had held back for the rest of the picture. It’s thrilling and a little relieving to watch, since it marks a permanent and positive change in Wild’s demeanor. The ferocity with which Statham moves in the subsequent fight is even more striking because of this. It’s one of his strongest performances, both as an actor and an action star.