In recent years, Jason Statham, with his stocky frame, bald head and gravelly voice that makes him sound like he’s always gnawing on broken glass, has become a kind of one-man wrecking crew, and not just because of his appearance in the “Crank,” “Transporter” and “Expendables” franchises. A rough, sexually viable action star in the mold of Charles Bronson, Statham is an actor whose mere presence in a movie almost guarantees mass destruction and piles of bloodied, bruised, and beaten bodies. But as he proved in last year’s criminally underrated “Safe” and again in this week’s weirdly buried “Redemption,” it’s when he’s quiet that Statham is the most powerfully devastating, like an undetonated bomb in a church square. The promise of violence is its own kind of allure.
Statham plays Joey Jones, who we learn from a jittery title sequence that plays on both the surveillance utilized in the Middle East and London’s own CCTV atmosphere, was a Royal Marine who is now living on the streets after something conceivably very unpleasant went down. He’s an alcoholic and struggles with mental illness. One night some thugs come to rough up the homeless residents of a shantytown where Jones is staying and he barely makes it out alive – he climbs onto a rooftop and jimmies his way into a luxurious apartment owned by a fashion photographer. Jones looks around the apartment and comes to learn that the photographer is going to be out of town for the next several months. It’s a little too convenient, plot-wise, but it gives “Redemption” (released overseas with the much cooler moniker of “Hummingbird”) an almost Dickensian flavor. This is, after all, a movie about faith and fate and, as the boring American title would suggest, redemption.
Jones settles into his new life, first as a dishwasher and then as an enforcer for the Asian mob, run by the always-terrific Benedict Wong. With his new money, he gifts the soup kitchen run by the saintly Sister Cristina (Agata Buzek) with lavish food items and hands the nun a wad of cash, which she spends on a ticket to the ballet. Soon, Jones is confronted with a ghost from his past – the young girl that Jones was with on the night that he slipped into his new identity has been forced into prostitution and subsequently murdered by a man who terrorizes hookers. The character, now simmering with perfectly Statham-calibrated rage, vows revenge.
“Redemption” was written and directed by Steven Knight, the absurdly talented writer behind the screenplays for Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things” and David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises.” If Knight has a thematic obsession, it’s the underground world of England’s working poor, the way that the people behind the scenes form an invisible, often dangerous network that goes largely unseen by most people (even with drones hovering in the skies and CCTVs perched at every corner). With “Redemption” he’s able to indulge in that obsession fully, with tangential trips into the back rooms and darkened corridors that the elite establishments are built upon but rarely glimpse themselves – the kitchen of an Asian restaurant, the office of a shabby church. Knight stays on moments just long enough to feel like, instead of observing the camera is imposing, even when he branches out stylistically (like the moment where Statham’s posh apartment is flooded with hummingbirds). Knight knows where Statham’s magnetism comes from and he’s not afraid to exploit it. More powerful than any moment of ass-kickery is the one where Statham encounters his ex-wife (and mother of his young daughter) in a grocery store and offers an apology for his absence. It’s a quiet, real moment, and Statham plays it beautifully.
Knight weaves in his concerns with the endlessly recorded nature of modern day London, thoughtfully investigates the role of the Chinese mafia in the city’s criminal underbelly, offers at least two unique character studies (of Jones and Sister Cristina, who has a tragic, violent back story that rivals Jones’), gives a compassionate, socially conscious view of homelessness, and manages to wrap it all up in a rainy, neon-lit film noir revenge movie where Statham is still given the opportunity to occasionally beat motherfuckers into a bloody pulp.
It’s unclear what the response to “Redemption” will be, since it will undoubtedly disappoint those looking for rock’em sock’em action in the vein of Statham’s previous work (there isn’t a single explosion). And those seeking something a little more highbrow might be disappointed by its genre underpinnings and occasionally grimy set pieces. Either way it’s a shame. Genre movies are rarely this finely calibrated and nuanced and it’s all too infrequently that Statham is able to perform in material this dynamic. Unlike most revenge movies, where the villain’s comeuppance is some grand, climactic gesture, in “Redemption” it feels like a costly means to an end. Statham, without many words, makes that burden known. Whatever people think a “Jason Statham movie” is, it’s probably not “Redemption.” And that’s a very, very good thing. [B+]