Listen: I have watched all kinds of movies, from black-and-white French existentialism to popcorn blockbusters, and my list includes Every Action Movie Known to Man–so if there’s a Jason Statham movie I haven’t watched, that’s only because THEY ARE STILL SHOOTING IT RIGHT NOW.
And there’s a little known movie of his, WILD CARD, which is the hands-down champion of anything he’s ever done.
Counter-intuitive Reason No. 4: Not the fights
You can count on one hand the Statham movies that do not feature tons of amazing fights, where instead he just helps rob a bank and such, and maybe punches THREE people. These movies exist. I have seen them. THE ITALIAN JOB (remake), THE BANK JOB (looks like the ’70s, is not). There is a list.
It is entirely possible, and conventionally smart, to rank typical Jason Statham movies on the quality and creativity of the battles.
That isn’t what makes WILD CARD stand out. The fight scenes aren’t 10 times better. They’re quite good, sure, but that isn’t it. Here’s the big casino brawl. Nicely done.
However, THE TRANSPORTER is packed with some of the best action ever filmed. Ding dong.
Reason No. 3: The writing
This is a big part of the appeal of WILD CARD, which deserved a bigger box office and more attention.
Most thrillers–movies or novels–are pretty linear. A to B to C, straight line. Evil men are doing evil things and we need a hero who can match them, whether it’s spy vs spy or fist vs fist.
The writer for this movie is William Freaking Goldman, who wrote a novel this film is based on and also dabbled in screenplays since, I don’t know, 1965. Wrote a few little films like ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN and THE PRINCESS BRIDE and five billion others.
So yeah, Jason Statham will never get a better screenwriter for one of his moves. Ever. And the quality shows, start to finish.
Instead of an A-B-C storyline, where everything is on-the-nose, Goldman starts with a fakeout. We see Statham being a jerk to a man and his girlfriend in a bar, and it isn’t until a few scenes later that it’s clear he got paid to bully the man and lose a fight in the alley to boost the man’s prospects with his girlfriend. The whole movie is like this, with setups and payoffs interwoven with subtext and subtlety. You just don’t get that in your average action movie.
Reason No. 2: The director
Yes, you can make a case that Luc Besson and Jason Statham were born to make movies together, with Luc’s gonzo style goosing up Statham’s dry delivery and humor.
Simon West isn’t quite on the god-tier level of William Goldman, though he’s got an action-movie pedigree a mile long. The man directed CON AIR, THE MECHANIC (another Statham film), and the original Rick Roll video, NEVER GONNA GIVE YOU UP. I kid you not.
Writer and director are 90 percent of the battle, and in this case, it was the right decision to run in the opposite direction of Luc Besson and gonzo. Simon West went with gritty, and it works.
Reason No. 1: Letting the hero be clever
I know, I know–every hero should be smart, right? Except this doesn’t typically happen in thrillers and action movies.
Hero see problem. Hero smash!
Did that not work? Smash different way?
Not work? Smash harder!!!
There’s a huge, quiet, and tense scene where Statham is in deep trouble. Baby, a Vegas mob boss, brings him in about two murders. His fingerprints are on the gun (true). In an ordinary action movie, the solution to this problem is Statham kicks a thug, punches another dude in the throat, and jumps down an elevator shaft with the cable wrapped around Baby’s throat.
Except that’s stupid, and not really an option. Statham knows he can’t fight his way out of this. Even if he somehow killed everybody in the room, Baby’s organization would not shrug and say, “Okay, you win, go on with your bad self.” They would hunt him down, and he would die.
So I really found this scene to be different and beautiful. The one setup you need to know is the bad guy accusing Statham raped a friend of his, and Statham helped sneak her into the hotel to get a little revenge, and they didn’t actually kill anybody.
You have to love Baby’s dialogue in this scene. Normal action films would be on the nose, with Baby saying, “Yeah, I believe him over you. Get outta here before I change my mind and tell Junior to put one between your eyes.” Baby’s polite, understated menace and sarcasm is far more frightening than a tough guy who has to yell and threaten people.
Every year, Hollywood, Bollywood, and other movie-making centers of the world spend $459.3 bazillion dollars producing action movies, with $458 bazillion going to CGI and special effects and $0.00001 bazillion paid to the screenwriters.
WILD CARD is a tremendous argument that you can produce far better movies in this genre by reversing that ratio. I don’t believe there is a single frame of CGI in this thing. Doesn’t need it.
Kudos to Simon West, Jason Statham, and the legend known as William Goldman–we will never have another like him.