By Eric Kohn | Indiewire June 24, 2013 at 12:16PM
"I'll kill you with this spoon," growls Jason Statham in "Redemption," in one of the few moments that remind us that he's currently the most endearing action star working today. But in this curiously subdued tale of grief and trauma, such a signpost works against the story's tone, perhaps by design. Ever since "Crank" in 2006, Statham has epitomized the appeal of cartoonish action vehicles unabashedly committed to entertaining at all costs. "Redemption" marks his first starring role to downplay those qualities -- or rather to take them at face value in a more realistic setting. Though it never quite holds together, the movie maintains a unique hook, by turning the spectacle of Statham into a human condition.
Steven Knight, making his directorial debut, previously wrote the screenplays for David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises" and Stephen Frears' "Dirty Pretty Things," which similarly operated outside of conventional storytelling expectations even while adhering to a series of familiar events. "Redemption" repeatedly looks like it's headed toward one kind of movie -- a "Rambo"-like tale of post-traumatic rage embodied by a muscular anti-hero -- and yet constantly refuses to get there.
In the fragmented opening sequence, Statham is glimpsed in action as Special Forces soldier Joey during a chaotic Iraq showdown in which several of his compatriots are killed, leading him to angrily retaliate while warplanes observe the violence from above. That godlike POV returns throughout the movie to watch Joey in his alienated life outside of the war, pointing to his growing sense of dread over the possibilities of his past catching up with him. Like much of the movie, the device's symbolic dimensions are at odds with its flashier qualities.
Burnt out and guilt-ridden, Joey deserts his post and vanishes into the streets of London -- where we find him a year later, living in an alley and barely recognizable under a patch of unkempt hair. A series of quick developments establishes the curious scenario under which the rest of the narrative takes place: Fleeing a pair of muggers who assault him and his fellow alleymate, he breaks into a posh apartment and discovers its wealthy resident won't return home anytime soon, so he takes on the man's identity and digs into his bank account. In the bathroom, armed with a razor, Joey shaves his head and stares back at himself in the mirror, revealing Statham's familiar bald-headed presence beneath. The scene has the markings of a superhero montage in which the main character dons his costume for the first time…but once again, the build-up is something of a fake-out.
Instead of hitting the streets to kick ass, Joey returns to a soup kitchen to bestow monetary gifts on the kind-hearted Sister Cristina (Agata Buzeka) who works there. While she struggles with her own crisis of faith over whether she should accept the gift, Joey drifts into the night in search of the woman who vanished after the mugging incident; she's been sold into the sex trade, but he can't pin her down, despite his best efforts. After learning from Sister Cristina that his old friend is beyond his reach, the furious Joey finds some of goons responsible for her fate and starts to flaunt his intimidating strengths (hence the spoon threat) on a path toward revenge. Under the employ of a stern-faced Chinese mob boss, he flexes his muscle around town while keeping an eye out for his main targets. Finally, the absurdly virile and invincible Statham we know and love comes out to play…or does he?
Once again, "Redemption" takes a few strange twists. Joey exchanges a few terse words his with his frustrated ex-wife before directing his affections at Sister Cristina, falling for her kind eyes and gentle spirit. Her own dark past, revealed in the final act, provides an ideal vessel for Joey to recognize his frustrations in another troubled soul. Unfortunately, it's here that oppositional qualities of "Redemption" start to flail; the story takes a half-hearted turn into romantic territory but never manages to make the chemistry between the characters click, mainly because Statham's stern gaze prohibits him from generating much empathy. The movie reflects his coldness.
Still, as a statement about the fixed nature of cinematic tropes, "Redemption" provides a compelling supplement to Statham's current stardom. In one scene, Joey endures a nightmare about his past as CGI hummingbirds and corpses assault him from every angle. That strange combination of ingredients is the movie's central coup. Joey's war with his own maniacal tendencies echoes, however faintly, Adam Sandler's meta performance in "Punch Drunk Love," which found the actor translating the tantrums that he usually plays for comedy into something more pensive and analytical. In "Redemption," Statham also seems to be exploring the qualities that put him on the map. And now that he's had a chance to examine his appeal, "Redemption" also shows why he belongs there.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Roadside Attractions releases "Redemption" this Friday, although it has already opened in several European markets. During a busy summer in which it's being released in the shadow of "White House Down," its box office prospects are minimal but it may pull in enough Statham fans to sustain it in the short-term in a handful of markets.