Here’s one more Comic-Con International 2008 anecdote as I clean out my notebook from the long weekend:
Could a British actor wear the red horns of the Man Without Fear? Jason Statham says, "Absolutely, just give me the chance, I would love to be Daredevil."
Statham was in San Diego to promote "Death Race," his upcoming high-octane film, but after a long day "The Transporter" star was taking it easy with a beer downstairs at the Hard Rock Hotel. Also sitting at the table was filmmaker and comics icon Frank Miller, whose solo directorial debut "The Spirit" arrives in theaters on Christmas Day. Fans of comics know that Miller became a superstar for Marvel Comics with his work on "Daredevil" beginning in 1979 and many of his creations and innovations (not least among them, the character Elektra) added new depth to a character that had largely been an also-ran for Marvel since his title started in 1964. Miller got a twinkle in his eye when the topic turned to a Daredevil movie.
Daredevil made to the screen in 2003, of course, with Ben Affleck in the red suit, filmmaker Mark Steven Johnson writing and directing and much of Miller’s mythology as its foundation. The movie arrived on Valentine’s Day but not everybody loved it–some notable critics despised it, in fact, and on Rotten Tomatoes it got 43% positive reviews, which may be the definition of lukewarm. (I myself thought the movie was underrated, although when I think about it I probably respected it more than I actually liked it.)
Sitting with Statham and Miller, it was easy to get excited about the idea of another "Daredevil" movie, one that was not a remake as much as it was a new installment. Hey Miller is the man who wrote the "Born Again" story arc in "Daredevil" — there’s plenty he could do with the character in a new movie. Statham said he is eager to work with Miller at some point and that he adores the Daredevil character. I made the mistake of asking Statham if might not make a better Bullseye than Matt Murdock and I thought he might hit me with his pint glass. "Forget Bullseye, I want to be Daredevil!" Miller nodded. "I think he should be Daredevil too."
Bonus: I wrote a long feature on Statham in August last year, you can find it after the jump.
Meet the biggest jaw in town
By Geoff Boucher, Times Staff Writer
JASON STATHAM’S acting career began on the sidewalks of Argyle Street in London. Sitting on a milk crate with a suitcase of bogus jewelry, the young street hustler said whatever it took to persuade tourists to buy gold chains that would turn green by the time they flew home. "That was street theater. It was called fly pitching. You work with a team — some people in the crowd, some guys who stand lookout for the police. Those were the most lucrative days of my youth."
Later, Statham would be introduced to a young filmmaker named Guy Ritchie who was looking to pepper the cast of his upcoming crime film with non-actors whose faces evoked London’s seedier pubs. Statham laughed at the memory. "There were two reasons: He wanted to save money, and he wanted street credibility. Guy shoveled me up off the street. Without him, there wouldn’t be all this." "All this" is Statham’s career as a Hollywood action hero, which is ramping up right now like one of the turbo-charged cars he usually wrecks in his films.
Statham stars opposite Jet Li in "War," a bloody tale of Asian organized crime that opens Friday in theaters, and next week he leaves for Canada to begin filming "Death Race," the Universal Pictures remake of the nihilistic 1975 sci-fi film "Death Race 2000." The rugged Statham has been in 19 movies since 2000 and won the affection of discerning action fans with the deliriously dangerous stunts he did as the title character in "The Transporter" in 2002 and its sequel in 2005, but "Death Race" marks the first time that the 34-year-old will have a major studio and a blockbuster budget at his back when he jumps off a building.
"This is the big leap," Statham said. "This is my first step into the big world of fully equipped action movies, if you will. I’m very, very excited. And the movie: The script is greeaaat. They got missiles, anti-aircraft guns, napalm, oil slicks — it’s serious stuff. Oh, yes. It’s riiight up my street."
In conversation, Statham is like a one-man pub crowd on fight night — lots of volume, some cheering here and there, plenty of jabs at the air and a dazzling array of casual obscenities. In fact, throughout this article, any time you see a noun in one of his quotes, assume there was a certain adjective in front of it.
His defining early appearances on screen were in Ritchie’s breakthrough films: the fascinating, funny and lurid "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" in 1998 and its companion piece, "Snatch," in 2000. With his short hair, bullet-shaped head, athletic build and intense scowl, Statham quickly became typecast as the British hardman, to borrow the soccer term for enforcers who prowl the pitch.
The athleticism was real: Statham the street kid had also traveled the world as a member of the British national diving team. "I started really late," Statham said. "To compete with the rest of the world you have to start when you’re 4 or 5 years old. I started at 15. I picked it up really, really quickly."
That’s not to say that all that pool water cleansed him of his shadier aspects.
"Within a year I was on the British team traveling around the world with a British tracksuit on and jumping in bed with Russian girls. It was a little hobby that ended up taking out 10 years of my life. I was never as dedicated as I should have been. I had spurts of dedication. Feast or famine. That’s all I am. The middle is boring. If you’re going to do something, do it with style! Get amongst it! Whatever you do, do it to the extreme."
The real question about Statham is whether he is an actor playing stuntman or a stuntman playing actor.
Aviation Boulevard in Inglewood is straddled by warehouses, small factories, parking lots and junk heaps, many of them guarded by razor wire. It’s also where Statham, who has a home in the Hollywood Hills, has been coming for 10 weeks to pound his body into lean sinew for "Death Race."
The private fitness studio is in the rear of an industrial complex and, when you walk in, the first thing you see are swords hanging on the walls. The trainer who runs the place, Logan Hood, worked with cast members of "300," which explains the axes, spears and staffs clustered in a rear corner. The other day, Statham, his cheekbones and neck still scarlet from an intense workout, plopped down on a couch and discussed his career while he idly picked at the calluses on his palms.
"I’ve never had a trainer in my life, this is a whole new experience," he said. He clutched his fists and the insides of his forearms popped with a spider-web of veins. "And I’m in better shape now than I have been ever." His "ever" sounds like "ev-vuh," still echoing with London asphalt.
The accent and the stoic tough-guy aura may be why Statham is more popular with female audiences than many of his hard-knock peerage; he also had a brief career as a fashion model, but even then his poses had an air of menace. He chuckled at that notion: "I’ve just got a really bad smile. I go for the scowl instead."
This has been a time for lethal cinema stoics, with Matt Damon as Jason Bourne and Daniel Craig as James Bond leading the way, and Statham is eager to join the killer club. One problem, though, is that Statham’s fans have come to know him best as a leading man in the "Transporter" films that veer into the ludicrous. Like Jackie Chan, Statham has a highlight reel of over-the-top scenes where he uses not just swords and guns as weapons but nutty objects such as paint buckets, fruit, handcuffs and, most famously, a fire hose to vanquish his foes. Chan gets away with it by playing a cartoon with a bewildered grin; Statham pulls it off with that scowl and an expression of barely contained exasperation.
The approach has worked well: There is a third film in the "Transporter" franchise in discussion, and once again Luc Besson will co-write (it is not clear, though, if Louis Leterrier would direct). Even Statham knows, though, that if he wants a long-term career, he can’t keep making movies where he comes off as some sort of ninja version of Buster Keaton in sleek European suits.
"Ideally, I’d want to do something that’s a bit more of an adult movie in tone, like the ‘Bourne’ movies," Statham said. "But maybe that’s not what the people want to see. I dunno. It’s hard. You always want to do what you haven’t done."
In "Transporter 2," Statham’s character, Frank Martin, is an inscrutable bodyguard and driver who can do just about anything behind the wheel of a car. At one point, knowing there’s a bomb affixed to the bottom of his souped-up sedan, he takes the car airborne and upside-down so the dangling hook of a nearby crane can perfectly catch on the bomb and pluck it from the undercarriage just before it explodes.
Statham rolled his eyes over the scene. "Well, I can’t turn my nose up at anything I’ve done. There are certain things that I’ve said, ‘Oh, God. Do we really have to put that in the movie?’ But my taste doesn’t necessarily reflect everybody else’s taste. Sometimes that kind of stuff doesn’t really ring my bell."
He risked death several times shooting the "Transporter" sequel, especially in a scene where he jumped to the rear of a school bus from a jet ski that was skidding down a city street. The crew had one day at the location on Collins Avenue in Miami and, in Statham’s view, the stunt was poorly designed and equipped — a winch that could be used to make the stunt safer was not available — and finally an exasperated Statham did it anyway. The jet ski was attached to a steel rope that ran under the bus and to the rear bumper of a car driving in front of the bus. That car’s driver had to gauge the speed required to pull the jet ski close enough for Statham to make the jump to the moving bus.
"If the guy in the front would have put on the brakes at the wrong time, I would have made the jump and hit that street." He slapped his hands. "That would have been the end of me, curtains."
Eastwood. . . or Seagal?
THE squints, scowls and deadpan expressions have made him sort of a latter-day Clint Eastwood, some say, but they could also make him just a cooler British version of Steven Seagal.
To Steve Chasman, a producer of "War" and both "Transporter" films, the Eastwood analogy works, even from a career standpoint. He said Statham captured the attention and imagination of fans first, and now major studio executives are catching on.
"It’s like when Clint came up through television and then went off to do the Sergio Leone movies in Europe, and he came back to Hollywood really an outsider, and he wasn’t lifted up — he had to prove himself. I think Jason has that same type of career ahead of him."
Eastwood eventually became not only a director but an action hero who could put down his gun and stride through dramas and even cross the "Bridges of Madison County" into romances. Does Statham have the ability to be in a movie where he doesn’t get his face punched?
"Absolutely," Chasman said. "But right now, you have to keep the audience happy too and give people what they want. We can’t forget we are making movies for people, not just for ourselves. . . . Is he going to go off and do Shakespeare? I don’t think so, at least not right now."
"War" is not the film that will move Statham closer to Hamlet, that’s for sure. The reviews that will come this week will likely mock some of the stiffer dialogue and point out how director Philip G. Atwell (who came up by making music videos for Eminem, Dr. Dre and 50 Cent) is more interested in his lens fetish for sports cars and breasts than storytelling. The movie is really a series of interrogations and bad-guy monologues, but Statham keeps it somewhat interesting with his raspy intensity.
The actor said he had not seen the finished film, but it was clear he had mixed feelings about it already. "I’m very fussy," he said quietly. "I’m very hard to please."
The most cynical way to view Statham’s resume is to say that those two early films with Ritchie were the most compelling roles of his career. A more generous view, though, would point out that he nicely held his own in "The Italian Job," even though he was sharing the screen with Mark Whalberg, Edward Norton and Charlize Theron.
If "War" was just a chance to fight Li on screen, Statham’s next two films may determine a lot about his career path. "Death Race," which co-stars Joan Allen, Ian McShane and Tyrese, is due in September 2008. Also due next year is a far smaller film, "The Bank Job," directed by Roger Donaldson ("The Recruit," "No Way Out") and based on the true story of burglars who endeavor to steal compromising photos of Princess Margaret tucked in a safe deposit box.
"It’s a drama, and I’m more proud of this than most anything I’ve done," Statham said. "For me, it was a chance to do something new, you know, play a bit of a more deeper character. I’m trying to break the walls down in different areas. The more people see you do and the more bums in seats you provide and the more dollars you get — you can kind of pick and choose what you do."
Statham has competed on London sidewalks, the diving board and the box office, but the longer you talk to him the more clear it is that the most appropriate arena for him might be a steel cage. And that he would be thrilled to be one of those modern gladiators in Ultimate Fighting Competition, which stages mixed-martial arts matches that leave fighters bloodied and broken.
"That is by far my favorite sport, the only thing that holds my attention. I go to all the matches. I respect those guys above all other athletes. They are the ultimate." The man who approaches Hollywood like a fistfight smiled. He started explaining his approach to physical training, but he could just as easily have been discussing his views on his career.
"If you have a piece of dynamite, you can tap on it with a pencil all day and nothing happens — nothing — but if you whack it with sledge hammer — boom! That’s the idea. That’s how you get results."
Update: An early version of this story misspelled the name of Statham’s trainer as "Wood," when it should have been "Hood." It’s corrected in the piece as it appears above.
– Geoff Boucher
Photo by Mark Boster\Los Angeles Times