The craft of the B-picture has been lost. It’s been lost in a sea of audiences trained by awards shows and armchair critics to thumb their nose at straight action films, the kind of entertainment that used to be the audience’s bread-and-butter. It used to mean that you threw cash at the screen to make an action film in order to simulate larger-than-life actors going at each other in exotic locales. Computers changed all that, and altered audience’s expectations: the old magic just wouldn’t stand anymore, and action films needed to be buoyed by ridiculous computer effects (the ones that turned Tobey Maguire and Matt Damon into Schwarzenegger and Stallone) in order to create that enhanced un-reality. Simply kicking a guy in the head was no longer enough, despite the wonderful talent and inventiveness of some of the kickers, like Wesley Snipes, Jackie Chan or any of the slew of analog action heroes who have suffered in the digital age.
So thank God for Jason Statham. There’s a beautiful simplicity to Statham’s films, which vacillate between so-so to pretty good with little deviation, but which deliver satisfaction like clockwork and have established a body of work any real lover of cinema has to appreciate. Statham is big, bold, funny, sexy, and fierce, just about everything you want in an action hero. He’s buff and imposing, but never rude, with that British accent adding a hint of urbanity to his macho threats. There’s clearly a ceiling to how good a Statham film can be, really. There’s also a floor, and it’s very high, and Jason Statham practically guarantees he’ll never drop below that floor. If you’re a Statham fan, you’re a Statham fan for life, and you must lead a pretty decent one if you can count on The Last Real Action Hero to deliver annually. Sometimes life’s pleasures can be that simple.
His latest, and one of his best, is “Homefront,” and it’s something of an “Expendables” reunion with Statham playing a role originally earmarked for screenwriter Sylvester Stallone. At this point in his career, you just assume Statham’s unchanging accent means nothing, because here he’s a retired DEA agent named Phil Broker. We meet Broker when he’s undercover, breaking down a massive drug deal with fists and guns, turning his back on a fellow biker (Chuck Zito). During the ensuing raid, that biker’s son dies, and with a target on Broker’s head, he heads down South to retire as a single dad with his adorable preteen offspring. If you’ve seen any of these movies, it’s basically as if Statham, with an assist from Stallone, came into your home and set the table for you. You know exactly what’s cooking.
His young daughter runs into trouble one day and comes face to face with a bully. She does what any Statham child would do and whups his ass, planting the seeds for what feels like a potential longstanding feud. “Homefront” seems to suggest that long after Broker is gone, his daughter will be teaching her child how to deal with bullies and getting wrapped up with the local troublemakers as well. That poses a serious problem for the here and now, because when the boy’s father causes a ruckus Broker himself has to give him a polite, controlled, but still-brutal beating. Unfortunately, he’s married to a strung-out Southern belle played by Kate Bosworth, and she’s 1) supremely territorial and antagonistic, and 2) addicted to meth.
Director Gary Fleder isn’t exactly an action veteran, and the mostly-satisfying compositions in each fist and gunfight scream “second unit.” But the director of “Things To Do In Denver While You’re Dead” does know how to set up basic conflict and drama, so the community connections ring with a certain truth. Bosworth immediately takes her petty complaints about the muscular, uppity new neighbor and his tough daughter to her brother Gator, a local meth kingpin. Amusingly, his response boils down to him being too busy to humor her bitching, and suggesting that maybe she should lay off the drugs for awhile. It’s as if she is begging him to be the villain in a Jason Statham movie, and he’s refusing, because he knows exactly what happens to the villain in a Jason Statham movie.
Gator is played by James Franco, and it’s a performance free of winks or sarcasm. Franco earns negative attention because of his seeming ubiquity, but as an actor, he’s usually fairly committed to creating an honest character, no matter the genre. He plays this meth kingpin as a guy absolutely exasperated by the people around him, as if drugs were a hobby that grew into a tiring day job. He wants to make one big score and retire, and you get the sense that once he moves his last bit of product, with an assist from a local bike gang, he’ll be happy to live a life without having to actually carry a gun. It’s very much what you can imagine Franco’s Daniel Desario character from “Freaks and Geeks” grew up to be. He’s not the most likable character—he’ll maim and kill without compunction—but it’s refreshing to see a “bad guy” who will do absolutely anything to avoid another gunfight.
Not all of his associates share that wish. Eventually, that biker gang shows up led by Frank Grillo, and they’re ready to be very not-nice to the undercover agent who disrupted their drug trade. Grillo, one of the real hard men of Hollywood, provides the malevolence that Gator avoids, sizing up the scenario like a hungry wolf. Grillo’s a guy that’s become recognizable over the years, but when you see him, it only takes a minute for you to forget this is an actor playing a role. Winona Ryder and Clancy Brown are serviceable in supporting parts, but it’s Grillo that feels most real.
Ultimately of course, this is Statham’s show, and as always he doesn’t disappoint. It feels like thematically there’s something lost in translation regarding his character representing an American ideal of masculinity. Or is it the idea that the DEA, and by extension the war on drugs, only serves to divide families and neighbors? “Homefront” never seems interested in pursuing these concepts as much as it does revealing the many different ways overmatched fools attempt to engage Statham in combat. Broker’s never wrong about anything, and his instincts remain razor-sharp even in the face of certain defeat. It’s not very complex. It’s just what movie stars used to do all the time. [B-]