You can make all sorts of academic arguments about how many stories there are. One: the hero’s journey. Two: tragedies and comedies. Ten, if you read SAVE THE CAT and see what primeval stories ring true. Plus plenty of other books and storytelling gurus and academics who will happily explain why there are actually 36 stories, or 100.
With action movies, I’d argue there are clearly some distinct types:
Monster in the House–You’re trapped in an enclosed space with a monster, and either it’s gonna kill you or you’re gonna kill it. There’s no escape, no calling the cops, no trickery. This is a great situation and I’d argue ALIEN (supposedly sci-fi), FATAL ATTRACTION (pigeon-holed as domestic drama), and JAWS (mislabeled horror) are all actually Monster in the House.
A key difference between these stories and horror: the monster dies. In true horror stories, the monster is actually punishing everybody for their sins (teenagers drinking, doing drugs, having sex, or scientists playing God) and everybody dies in the end. Only the monster returns for the sequels.
Disaster–A volcano is about to go off, a giant asteroid will hit the planet, or a climate change means Kevin Costner’s movie WATERWORLD is a prophecy. This type of movie ends one of three ways: (a) the hero stops the disaster (ARMAGEDDON), (b) the hero can’t stop it but gets everybody out of the burning lava, or (c) this is really a horror movie and the disaster can’t be stopped because we’re being punished for our sins.
War–You can’t get a setting with more conflict and action than a war zone, though war movies are often actually about other things with the war truly being the setting and backdrop. Pure war movies are about fighting the good fight and punching Nazis in the nose, or defeating an invasion of aliens by flying your F-16 straight up into the death beam after the president gives an amazing speech. Anti-war movies (PLATOON) are about making people cautious about getting dragged into a mistake, or fighting wars for the wrong reasons.
Rescue–I don’t know who you are. I don’t have any money. What I do have is a certain set of skills.
Betrayal–This is beating heart of thrillers, especially ones that don’t rely on Jason Statham finding creative ways of kicking people in the face. Betrayal from within is a tough, tough story, and there’s plenty of tension and storytelling goodness involved. Using betrayal in an action movie is a wonderful way to spice up the typically predictable plots of most action stories.
Which brings us to THE MECHANIC, an under-rated action movie directed by Simon West, who also helmed WILD CARD, perhaps Statham’s most interesting movie.
Why betrayals work so well
What this film does so well is piling up layer upon layer of betrayals.
Your average action film has zero.
A decent one may have a big betrayal right before the climax, something you really did not see coming.
THE MECHANIC shows us how smart storytelling, with early setups, can matter far more than a film’s CGI budget.
This movie starts with a betrayal that leads to Statham being tricked into killing his mentor. And that leads the dead man’s son to Statham, seeking solace and revenge, not knowing it was Statham who pulled the trigger. What’s great is we don’t know until late that the mentor was set up, the evidence against him faked, so Statham genuinely felt remorse. That guilt doesn’t go away when he learns the truth, because it doesn’t change the fact he shot his friend, false pretenses or not.
So it’s beautiful in the end that the son, after helping take out the bad guys, still can’t let go of the fact that his new friend killed his father, and tries to take him out by blowing up his truck when they stop for gas. Even better are the setups–and they are plural, for they are legion–of how the son goes back to Statham’s house, full of dead bad guys, and does everything Statham told him to never do: turn on his fancy record player and drive the red sports car he’s always fixing up and never using.
The car and house blow up, along with the son, and all of this feels about right. Statham didn’t go out of his way to kill the son, not even after the attempt on his life. Wouldn’t seem correct since he did take the man’s father. The son only dies through hubris.
There are more betrayals in this movie, I kid you not, and they’re all set up correctly. None of that nonsense where a film shows a payoff, then explains the setup with a flashback scene THAT YOU NEVER SAW BEFORE.
11/10, an excellent movie that starts strong and ends stronger, with deautiful twists you do not see coming.