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The Originals: “The Mechanic” is the Movie I Wanted “The American” to Be

The Originals: "The Mechanic" is the Movie I Wanted "The American" to Be

“The Mechanic” is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. Unfortunately (for CBS Films), I’m not talking about the new version starring Jason Statham, which I haven’t yet seen (it opens next Friday while I’m at Sundance, so it’ll take a while) and which does not seem to be that faithful of a remake. I mean the 1972 original, which stars Charles Bronson in his second of six collaborations with “Death Wish” director Michael Winner.

Sight-unseen I have to at least recognize a benefit to the new film’s existence as it made me curious about the old one. I’d never heard of “The Mechanic” before it went into the copy machine and even if I had I probably wouldn’t have been so curious about it. Most people probably aren’t so inclined to check out an original before seeing a remake, though. If that regularly happened, I doubt so many remakes would actually get made.

So I implore you, whether or not you’re interested in the new version, to watch the 1972 film. It is currently streaming on Netflix Watch Instantly, and by the time the first fifteen minutes of completely dialogue-free suspense are over, I promise you’ll be hooked. What comes after the opening is pretty much what I wish Anton Corbijn’s “The American” was, a hit-man thriller that owes enough to Antonioni while also having some accessible action — most of which is packed tightly into the last couple minutes and very much worth the wait.

Bronson plays a “mechanic,” another term for hired killer, who works for an organization co-founded by his father. After being ordered to kill an old friend who also works for the organization, he befriends that man’s spoiled son (Jan-Michael Vincent, years before “Airwolf”) and begins to teach him the trade. As you should expect from this sort of film, though, changing the way a hit man works is often his downfall, and so the apprenticeship obviously ends up being a bad idea. I’m certain Luc Besson was influenced by “The Mechanic” when he made “Leon” (aka “The Professional”), which is funny since we now also have Besson to partly thank for Statham’s popularity, too.

Don’t let the possibility of predictability fool or deter you. The film still has a lot of great scenes along the way, and while many consider the story to be an example of existentialism, I think there’s a lot more there. It’s basically the generational shift stuff that was a popular theme of the time. “The Mechanic” involves an organization fore-founded by the fathers of the two leads. And then they too end up having a kind of old/new dichotomy as well.

Look for other counter-culture bits of the young clashing with their elders. Kids motorcycling on the lawn of a dated garden party. A great scene involving a martial artist practicing a fresh approach to karate who unexpectedly turns on an older master. Other hints at the theme figure simply in the background as Bronson is often surrounded by younger extras in the background. But it’s not a film in favor of the new generation, which comes across as impatient — not willing to savor life, not seeming to care if they die. If there is anything I’d like the remake to tackle, it is that message.

The last half hour of the movie is set in Italy and is probably best described as the story of an aging cowboy trying to play James Bond. If Bond had mistakenly taken on a sidekick. And unlike “The American” or, likely worse, the new version of “The Mechanic,” the very end will probably have you contemplating just what occurred and how, as well as why.

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