When is a Jason Statham movie not a Jason Statham movie?

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When is a Jason Statham movie not a Jason Statham movie? When it co-stars two Oscar nominees (Winona Ryder and James Franco), a thespian-turned-fashionista (Kate Bosworth) and noted character actors like Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption, Starship Troopers) and Frank Grillo (Warrior, The Grey).

Statham’s stock is evidently going up in the world. Likely it has little to do with the hulking hard nut’s attempt at dramatic legitimacy earlier this year in Hummingbird. No one saw it and I don’t suspect renaissance man Franco has either. He was probably too busy being a director/novelist/artist/student/teacher/whatever, but he can now add DTV villain to his résumé.

Stars or no stars, in the end it doesn’t matter how terrible the films are, Statham is the last of his kind, his old school actioners filling a gaping hole in the market now that Schwarzenegger and Stallone are expendable geriatrics and all Bruce Willis can manage is a contemptible “too old for this shit” smirk whenever he picks up a gun. Liam Neeson may be Hollywood’s most bankable badass, but at 61, holding the bad guys at gunpoint and screaming “Give me my wife back!” is a kidnap and ransom routine that more closely resembles the Harrison Ford thrillers of the nineties rather than the arch ass kicking of a Chuck Norris or a Jean-Claude Van Damme.

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Satisfying a simple case of supply and demand, as Statham continues to churn ‘em out at an alarming rate and make a good return for the studios, agents too, inevitably want a piece of the action pie. That means bigger co-stars, but the formula remains the same. If it ain’t broke, Jason’ll break it.

This time on the merry-go-round of ex-CIA/ex-military/ex-special forces hard men, Statham plays ex-undercover drug enforcement agent, Phil Broker, a family man who moves off the grid with his daughter to a seemingly quiet backwater bayou after a drug bust gone bad. But Broker didn’t reckon on the rednecks living there, dopers and tweekers riddling the community with drugs and violence, all of it overseen by sociopathic methamphetamine kingpin, Gator Bodine (James Franco), who comes on to Broker’s radar after daddy’s little girl puts a beating on the bully at school, who also just happens to be the son of Gator’s meth-addicted sister (Kate Bosworth). So naturally, Broker is forced back into action in order to protect his family and save the town.

Before all that though, there’s the inciting incident, in which Broker has infiltrated an outlaw gang of motorcycle drug dealers and now betrays their trust, getting the gang leader’s son killed in the process. Backed by the generic heavy metal chugging of Mark Isham’s score, when Statham first appears on screen in disguise, the biker getup that makes Broker look like he’s on his way to a Motorhead gig would be hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that the long hair and bushy beard is an unfortunate reminder of the Guy Richie travesty Revolver. Less than a minute in and things are not looking good.

But what’s this? Statham reeling off two lines of dialogue in American bad guy speak with an accent that doesn’t waver?! Has the pressure of starring alongside some big-time names finally meant he’s put the legwork in and tried to up his game as an actor? Fear not, for the very next line and indeed, for the rest of the film, Statham proves once again, that right up there with his physical skills, his talent for half-assed accents is unmatched. Anthony Hopkins, Sean Connery and Michael Caine are rank amateurs of terrible accents next to the duffer from Derbyshire, who like a 0-60 Lamborghini, goes from the mangled American Midwest, to gravel-toned geezer and back again, often in a single utterance. Eventually Statham always retreats to the middle ground of grumbling like a wrestler, but even then, his gruff whisperings are more Phil from EastEnders than Steven Seagal in his much slimmer prime.

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In The Transporter, Statham somehow deployed both accents in his arsenal in just two words. When he tells the damsel in distress that she has a chance to “Start over!”, he stresses the first word, dropping the ‘t’ like a yank, but pronouncing the second, ‘ovah!’ in glottal stop cockney. This remains his most atrocious line reading, but make no mistake, the wonky accented waverings of Phil ‘Brokah” is first rate Stath, and I’m here to tell you that the man’s tough guy status comes not only from his furious fists, but his total dedication to not giving a fuck when it comes to dialects. For connoisseurs of cringe, Homefront ranks right up there with Parker, in which Statham memorably went so far as to don a ten gallon hat and a bolo tie when his Lonestar state vocal stylings by way of Albert Square didn’t quite sell it. Who can forget Jennifer Lopez’s startled discovery of Parker’s true identity: “I knew you weren’t from Texas!”

To its credit, the makers of Homefront and their star do strive for more. The father-daughter bonding scenes are meant to show a sensitive side to Statham, who in person is known for being charming and good humoured, characteristics director Gary Fleder desperately tries to communicate by having Broker smile at every opportunity. Fortunately Fleder fares much better with the set pieces than with what Statham once famously referred to as “all that emotional stuff.” As a director who alternates between competent programmers (Runaway Jury) and farcical thrillers (Don’t Say a Word), this is some of Fleder’s best work, keeping the impressive fight choreography down n’ dirty, but cleanly shot, and from a distance where we can actually tell what’s going on. It’s one of many ways in which the film feels agreeably old-fashioned, not least for its screenplay written by Sylvester Stallone, who at one time intended to star before sensibly passing on the torch. Homefont has both the creaking architecture and clockwork plotting of a classic western, in which the hero rides into town only to get pushed around by the locals before they realize that they’re pushing the wrong guy, and things are straightened  out before he leaves the town a better place.

This where real actors, often lacking in most actioners, come in handy. Whenever things become a bit too predictable or the film begins to look and feel like a Sly relic from ’92, there’s Kate Bosworth screaming profanities, all hopped-up and jittery, and James Franco, doing a fine line in harassment and intimidation for someone who looks so non-threatening. It’s a DTV archetype, but rather than playing Gator as a vengeful hick, Franco adds a certain eeriness while doing his best impersonation of Cape Fear’s Max Candy. Winona Ryder looks great as beaten down biker groupie Cheryl Mott, even though she’s not suited to a potty mouth and her perfectly made-up features and fresh-from-the-Salon hair are more big city than small town. Ryder’s not given much to do other than lean against bars and cars seductively, and her rather ignoble character introduction of being bonked over the bonnet of a car calls undue attention to a drastic career downturn, but once Cheryl realizes the very real danger she and Gator have put innocent people in, there’s ample opportunity for her to trot out her patented look of being horrified beyond belief, a trick she still does better than anyone else.

For those of us hoping for a little more drama to wash down with our beers on a Friday night, Homefront falls short, but the acting from the ensemble adds up to more standard issue Stath, with the slick set pieces showing the leading man at his athletic best, amply filling the required quota of big explosions and broken bones.

First published by Vérité Film Magazine on December 6, 2013

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