Now that Daniel Day-Lewis has entered retirement from acting, it might be time to give Jason Statham his due. Over the course of the last two decades, the bullet-shaped Brit has been a much-needed shot in the arm for action cinema, electrifying the genre with his unique blend of swagger and charisma. It’s fun to watch him drive a car really fast, it’s fun to watch him shoot bad guys with one arm while holding a baby with the other, and it’s really fun to watch him do both of those things in the same movie. What the 51-year-old star lacks in versatility, he more than makes up for in self-assurance — no one else on his level is as comfortable in who he is, and what he can do. We suspect that’s a lesson a giant shark is about to learn the hard way.
With “The Meg” finally swimming into theaters this weekend, we’ve taken the opportunity to reflect back on one of the least dynamic, most dependable bodies of work in the history of cinema. These are Jason Statham’s seven best movie roles.
7. Handsome Rob (“The Italian Job”)
Statham, just a few years removed from working as a model, completed his overnight Hollywood takeover by stealing F. Gary Gray’s heist remake in the immortal role of Handsome Rob, whose name perfectly describes everything you need to know about the character in just two words (he’s handsome, and he robs). Playing a wheelman probably wasn’t much of a stretch for an actor who had just come off “The Transporter,” and his performance here is pretty much the stuff of Statham 101 (lots of flinty sarcasm and gritted teeth as he plays the kind of unrepentant criminal who could charm your parents and outdrink your friends). But the lad from Derbyshire makes it work. He’s totally in his element here, a killer team player in a movie that needs him to do that one specific thing he does better than anyone else in the world: Be himself. —DE
6. Frank Martin (“The Transporter”, “The Transporter 2”, “The Transporter 3”)
It may seem quaint by today’s standards, but “The Transporter” remains in many ways the archetypal Statham performance — as well as the one that established him. His near-silent driver has only three rules — don’t change the deal, no names, and never open the package — which serve him well enough until extenuating circumstances demand that he take a less neutral approach to his automotive duties. Given the keys to his own starring vehicle, Statham delivered with time to spare; he manages to be convincing as the ass-kicking driver with a heart of gold, which is something of a trademark for him. Statham’s characters are rarely as gruff as they initially appear, and he somehow makes the process of sanding off his edges compelling time and again. — MN
5. Terry Leather (“The Bank Job”)
A scrummy Guy Ritchie heist movie without all of the Guy Ritchie-ness, “The Bank Job” proved once and for all that Jason Statham will eventually emerge as the most likable character in any film that features Jason Statham. He’s not even the main character here — drug smuggler and ex-model Martine Love (Saffron Burrows) only ropes Terry Leather (wink, wink) into the plot because they grew up together — he just slowly becomes the hero through sheer charisma, edging out a cast that includes half the scrappier character actors in England.
If it feels like Statham really had his heart in this one, perhaps that’s because his character’s good-natured trajectory from dodginess to glamour so perfectly mirrors his own. Or maybe it’s because Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’ script, about a bunch of cons trying to steal incriminating photos of Princess Margaret, gives him all of the best dialogue. Hearing Statham deliver a line like “[we need to] stop fucking about and stop picking the shit from under our fingernails” is enough to make you imagine an alternate universe where the guy works as a motivational speaker, or at least agrees to star in a drama every once in a while. —DE
4. Turkish (“Snatch”)
He doesn’t know much about diamonds, but Turkish — funny name for an Englishman, innit? — does know how to deliver a one-liner. He’s given plenty of opportunity to do just that in Guy Ritchie’s quotable cult classic, posters of which have adorned dorm rooms since shortly after it hit theaters in 2000; even as the film’s straight man, Statham balances grounding the more out-there characters (of which there are many) with stealing scenes of his own. Only his second film role (the first being Ritchie’s “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”), “Snatch” proved to be Statham’s breakout — meaning we should be as thankful for it as he must be. —MN
3. Deckard Shaw (“Furious 6″, “Furious 7”, “Fate of the Furious”)
Far and away the most controversial role of his career, Statham’s turn as the (initially) villainous Deckard Shaw forced the “Fast & Furious” franchise to switch gears so fast that you can still hear its brakes screeching. First introduced during a “Furious 6” post-credits sequence that reveals that Shaw murdered Han (or forward?) in “Tokyo Drift,” the former rogue special forces assassin immediately became the most insidious bad guy the series had ever seen.
That is… until everyone loved Statham’s performance so much that Shaw was somehow made a member of Dominic Toretto’s crew in “Fate of the Furious”, even though he murdered Han! It’s enough to make you feel like one of those sub-literate morons who troll Rian Johnson about “ruining ‘Star Wars.’” And yet, watching Shaw rampage through an entire airplane full of bad guys while holding a baby with one arm, all was forgiven. We can’t wait for the character to leave the rest of the franchise behind when Statham and the Rock team up for their spinoff next year. —DE
2. Chev Chelios (“Crank”, “Crank: High Voltage”)
His name is Chev Chelios, and today’s the day that he dies. Or at least it would be, were he not played by Jason Statham in one of the most pleasingly absurd action movies ever made. The premise does much of the heavy lifting — good ol’ Chev has been injected with a synthetic poison that will kill him if he doesn’t keep his adrenaline pumping, making him not unlike the bus from “Speed” — but Statham manages the keep viewers’ heart rates up just as surely as he keeps up his own. How does he do so, you might ask? Why, by forcing doctors to use a defibrillator on him, having sex with his girlfriend in public, and killing the people foolish enough to try killing him in the first place, of course. —MN
1. Rick Ford (“Spy”)
Lest you think Statham takes himself too seriously, “Spy” is here to make him deliver lines like this: “I once drove a car off a freeway on top of a train while I was on fire — not the car; I was on fire.” Such is the nature of Paul Feig’s espionage send-up, which also features one of Melissa McCarthy’s better performances and arguably Rose Byrne’s best. So while the “Expendables” and “Fast and Furious” movies give Statham plenty to do, they tend not to give him such gifted comic actors to play off of, let alone show off his own comedic chops. Rather than take it from us, just let him list off his more of his accomplishments: “This arm has been ripped off completely and reattached with this fucking arm. During the threat of an assassination attempt, I appeared convincingly in front of Congress as Barack Obama. I watched the woman I love get tossed from a plane and hit by another plane mid-air.” —MN