My better half and I are big fans of Jason Statham, one of the more unlikely action heroes in modern day cinema. Finding his way into the limelight through competitive diving, he became a model and then an actor, supporting himself by selling knock off perfume on street corners. No wonder he ended up playing a riff on part of his life at the time and a prototype of what he would become on screen in a pair of superb Guy Ritchie movies: 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' and 'Snatch'.
They're still his best films, but he's kept himself busy and found his way into a host of interesting movies. He's still a refreshing face to us, because he's a believable action hero without being one of the massively muscled behemoths we got used to in the eighties, even though he acts alongside many of them in the 'Expendables' movies. Instead, he's characterful and charming, tough and tender, brutal but believable.
The question that comes up is whether he can really act. Most action heroes don't even try, because they know they can't and they get by with their size, their power or their presence. I find that the antihero niche that Statham has carved out for himself is a strong fit for him and his periodic attempts to break out of it have been rather interesting. Behind the two Ritchie films and the first 'Transporter' movie, his best films may well be 'London' and 'Hummingbird', both of them calling for a lot more complexity than he normally gets to explore.
'Wild Card' is my 35th Statham movie (I only have the third 'Expendables' film to catch up with) and it's perhaps his most overt attempt to make a drama. There is action here, but it's not an action movie, it's a drama written by one of the most respected names in the business, William Goldman. He has two Oscars for 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' and 'All the President's Men', but most may know him nowadays because of 'The Princess Bride'.
For that film, he adapted his own novel to the screen and he did so here too, interestingly for the second time. 'Heat' was published in 1985 and he adapted it into a movie of the same name a year later. That's the Burt Reynolds 'Heat', not the Al Pacino and Robert de Niro 'Heat', by the way. Here, the story flows in a very similar fashion, though both the title and the name of the lead character were changed.
I understand that decision because it does ties the character to the film. Nick Escalante in 'Heat' isn't the same as Nick Wild in 'Wild Card'. The catch, which is a neat little play, is that Nick Wild, naturally Statham's character, isn't the only wild card in the story and perhaps he's not even the most important one.
Nick Wild is a bodyguard for hire in Las Vegas. While he makes a very good living because he's very good at what he does, it's by far the worst place in the world for him because he has a gambling problem, not one that affects his daily life but one that kicks in any time he's gathered together enough money to make retirement to a boat on the Mediterranean a possibility. 'I'm a trapped compulsive,' he confesses and during the pivotal scene late in the movie that sets up a few finalés, he proves that he's undoubtedly his own worst enemy.
And in that way, the wild card people hire turns out to be a predictable character. Goldman tells his story well and there are both a lot of monologues and a few brutal action scenes to build Wild, but he's still a cliché doing clichéd things and that's entirely the point. It takes another character, a real wild card, to come along and make the difference. That's Cyrus Kinnick, a client who hires Wild for a flimsy reason and makes us wonder what his real motivation is. We find out quite a lot about Kinnick as the movie runs on, but we don't really care. He's in the picture to be as important to Wild as Goldman hopes Wild is to us.
And that's the big question. Is Jason Statham, lovable rogue, up to the task of a real dramatic role? What we find is that he's a better actor than many think he is but perhaps not the actor that he wants to be. He proved himself capable of depth in 'Hummingbird' and he backs that up in 'Wild Card', but the movie needed its impact to be both physical and dramatic and he's not as balanced in that as he perhaps will be. He's there as a fighter but he's still growing as an actor and I'm looking forward to watching him grow further.
I've long felt that Statham is the modern day Steve McQueen. Certainly he has the cool factor and the charisma. He's still believable when pulling the hot chicks on screen, even though he's 47 years old; most of his contemporaries are very creepy doing that. Both are so comfortable as anti-heroes who have power enough inside that they can follow their own paths with credibility. Of course, both are also known for their driving roles. Statham is better in fights but McQueen has the acting edge, at least for now. The potential is there if Statham can continue to take roles like this in between the safe ones.
Simon West, who previously directed him in 'The Mechanic' and 'The Expendables 2' does better here, partly because Goldman wrote the script and partly because the recognisable faces in support are character actors not stars.
Stanley Tucci is a very calm and collected casino boss called Baby. He's a major figure in the world Goldman conjures up and he helps to build the presence of the lead. Nick Wild is known all around town by bartenders, dealers, waitresses, even drive by whores, but all are at the lowest level in the pecking order. That the folk at the top know him too says a lot. Tucci is superb, as are Anne Heche, Hope Davis and Jason Alexander, but none of them try to steal the show, which is admirable.
That everyone knows him means that he's an important piece on the chessboard that is Goldman's Las Vegas. He might want away from it but he belongs there and that echoes the presence of hard boiled detectives in films noir, a genre I'd love to see Statham explore, under the right direction, of course. Those characters who don't know Nick Wild have the wrong attitude for a film like this and they don't end up well, even if the actors shine in the process. Milo Ventimiglia in particular is a much more believable than usual slimeball.
So there's a lot here to immerse ourselves in. There are still downsides though. Because we're focused entirely on Nick Wild, those who help to build his character don't get to build their own. That also shifts the cliché of Nick and the wild card who finally makes the difference off balance; there's too much of the former and too little of the latter. That's primarily what drops this from being an excellent film to merely a good one. It becomes a too focused character study, one which Statham doesn't quite live up to. His best scenes are full of tension but when that drops, the scenes drop with them.
At the end of the day, this is a capable film, one that's more indie than mainstream, that plays with cliché as a deliberate creature, that carries depth where we might not expect it. It's mostly another step on the ladder for Statham, showing that his partnership with Simon West can do a lot more than the tedious if nostalgic overkill of 'The Expendables 2' could ever dream of. I wanted more, but I wasn't unhappy with what I got. ~~ Hal C F Astell