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January 28, 2011

‘The Mechanic’: Jason Statham walks ‘in Bronson’s boots’

Posted in: Movies

Jason Statham in "The Mechanic" (CBS Films)

Bill Chartoff and David Winkler were knee-high to a grasshopper when their fathers began striking Hollywood gold, producing films as “Raging Bull” and “Rocky.” Though Robert Chartoff’s clan lived in New York and Irwin Winkler’s lived in California, the two families were close — often spending Jewish holidays together, and even vacationing in Africa. Eventually, the sons –- who are about a year apart in age — followed their fathers into Hollywood filmmaking careers of their own, producing and directing movies. Though they’ve pursued solo projects, they are also bound by their fathers’ legacies. In 2006, the second generation teamed up as producers on “Rocky Balboa,” essentially the sixth movie in their fathers’ Sylvester Stallone boxing franchise.

But it’s perhaps more fitting that the two men have now teamed up to produce a remake of their fathers’ film “The Mechanic”: The original 1972 movie, starring Charles Bronson as a hit man, largely concerns the complicated nature of father-son relations and all the guilt, loyalty and honor they can entail. “We’ve known each other since we were born –- it’s like working with a cousin,” Chartoff, 47, said of working with David Winkler, 46. “Because of our fathers’ properties, we know we are sort of married for life. We know that we’ll always have a need and a want to interact with each other.”

Jason Statham has slipped into Bronson’s role as the coldly efficient killer Arthur Bishop, who takes on the task of mentoring his boss’ ne’er-do-well son (Ben Foster) after the boss’ untimely demise. Director Simon West (“Con Air”) has put a lot more action (and guns, blood and pyrotechnics) into the new version.  The two Winklers and two Chartoffs all had a role in the remake, with the elder statesmen (now in their late 70s) more involved in the script and financing elements, and the younger generation taking the lead with the hands-on, nitty-gritty work on set around New Orleans.

“The way it would work on this film is that we would separately read the [drafts of the] screenplays, discuss them,” Chartoff said. “I’d write up my notes and show them to my father, as well as to Simon and the Winklers. I’d get my father’s notes and condense them into my notes.” Added Winkler: “There were good moments, but also rocky moments like any relationship. Generally when we disagreed on something, we’d defer to the director, so we had someone who always had the last word.”

Chartoff said his father and Irwin Winkler had been thinking about a remake of “The Mechanic” since the 1990s, but they had trouble getting the project launched. Though Michael Douglas and Stallone had been talked about for the Bishop role, disagreements over the script – which had veered far off the original into something Chartoff described as “James Bond-like” – as well as issues at studio MGM kept the movie grounded. “We had misgivings about that approach,” he said. “We were never fully on board emotionally with that; we had an attachment to the original film.”

Part of that, he said, was an attachment to Bronson’s persona. “Much of his personality is in the original film — a lover of music and art. Those are wonderful character traits for a hit man. He’s something of a sophisticate,” Chartoff said.

The Chartoff and the Winklers knew that the new version would need more action if it were to satisfy contemporary audiences. When Statham and West became involved, and financing fell into place, plans took off; the new film, financed independently and distributed by CBS Films, cost in the “$25- to $30-million range,” Chartoff said. “The original was more of a thriller than an action movie. The original was very dark, almost European, and we retained certain elements of that, but it became clear to us that we needed to update it with more action.”

The scowling Statham, who got his start in Guy Ritchie’s frenetic London underworld films, has plenty of credibility with action-film fans after high-adrenaline work in “The Transporter” movies and his retro-commando romp in Stallone’s “The Expendables” last year. Still, he said there was plenty of risk in remaking an old favorite that has years and years of video-rental success. “There’s a big legacy with this,” Statham, 42, said. “To fill the old Bronson boots is a bit of an ordeal, it’s not to be taken lightly. You’re always going to get those comparisons, whether you like it or not. Any remake is subject to those questions and comparisons. … Bronson was one of my guys growing up. ‘Hard Times‘ was one of my favorite movies, James Coburn and Bronson. Bronson is the believable tough guy.”

Statham learned about the risk and rewards of revisiting old brands with the 2008 film “Death Race,” which was a prequel of sorts to the 1975 David Carradine cult-classic “Death Race 2000.” He was cautious about signing on to “The Mechanic” but loved the script. That optimism, though, withered a bit when he saw major changes to the story as the project moved forward through different screenplay drafts.

Sylvester Stallone, left, with Jason Statham in "The Expendables" (Lionsgate)

“I went to do Stallone’s film and came back and there was a completely new script,” Statham said. “It’s very difficult because you get attached to so many things in the original, things that you’re fond of, and then all of a sudden it changes. It’s very difficult to know whether the change is for the better or for the worse but you have to go with it. In the end, you’re in it and you do your best. Sometimes it works out great…[the shoot] ended up being a very good experience. I love working with Ben Foster.”

One of the big changes from the original comes in a short but critical sequence near the very end of the movie. The filmmakers shot two versions and tested them with audiences. “There was a need to balance an audience’s need for gratification, and to walk out feeling good about the movie, and yet stay true to the darker, troubling nature of the original,” Winkler said. “I think people who have seen the first one will be surprised, and that’s nice.”

Whether the second Winkler-Chartoff generation will team up again on another legacy project remains to be seen; Bill Chartoff mentioned that their fathers’ 1971’s “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight” and 1974’s “The Gambler” are ripe for remakes. But David Winkler said making movies now is a different game. “My dad and Bob have a lot of history together –- they’ve made, like, 30 movies together, and in a time where you didn’t have to worry about making $20 million in the first weekend,” he said. “The kind of stories they tell, the characters they worked with –- it’s a totally different atmosphere. There was a lot more sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll at that time.”

– Julie Makinen and Geoff Boucher

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