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By Michael Calleri

"The Mechanic" is a remake of a popular Charles Bronson movie from 1972, retooled for a contemporary action star. As with many remakes three decades down the road from their original, the blood and gore have been cranked up and the quirky character traits that so intrigued moviegoers in the glory days of 1970s filmmaking have been mostly eliminated, leaving us with a lean, mean killing machine -- empty cinematic calories for older teens and twentysomethings weaned on video games.

"The Mechanic" stars today's hottest action hero, Jason Statham, he of the many cover shots of magazines devoted to men's fitness and health. I stand behind no one in my enjoyment of some of Statham's work, especially the first "Transporter" movie, which is a perfect action picture, as well as "The Bank Job." Even in a supporting role, as with "Cellular," in which he plays a thug, Statham brings his usual rough masculinity to the role and steals the movie. Taking on the lead role of hitman Arthur Bishop in the new version of "The Mechanic" certainly seems like a natural fit for Statham. But what happened along the way is a case of that dreaded Hollywood disease: Who needs a story when we can just blow up things? This is unfortunate, because the story is a good one.

In the first version, Bronson was a killer with standards, a man for whom success meant leaving no trace he'd done his deadly job. The new version is a violent, overwrought mess, a mistake on many levels. It lacks cleverness and style. Director Simon West takes the easy, explosion-riddled way out.

The whole point of the exercise is that Bishop is a loner with high-end tastes in music, food and housing. He's an aesthete in how he conducts his life. After he kills his boss (Keenan Wynn), he takes the man's son under his wing. In the original, the son is Jan-Michael Vincent.

Bishop relishes mentoring the younger man. They move in together and carry out their assigned hits. The son thinks his father is just a boring old coot. His dad's death means nothing more to him than the fact that he can now have wild parties with his friends. There is no grief. What gives the film some shading is how Bronson carried out his targeted killings -- how he studied the victim and prepared for the deed.

The new edition follows the same pattern as the first. Statham is assigned the killing of his boss (Donald Sutherland). He then takes the son (Ben Foster) under his wing. The kid turns into a murderous young protege, but you realize he's burdened with serious daddy issues. He adores Statham.

Less time is spent on the preparation for the killings. In today's Hollywood, the notion is that you've got to get right to the action, and said action better include lots of fierce fire, billowing smoke and insane noise. The idea of the assassin doing his job so well that no one can figure out how the victim dies is tossed aside.

There's also an obvious homosexual subtext in the new "Mechanic." Shirts are tight, barely buttoned, or off. The gushy looks that Statham and Foster give each other are often hilarious. They're like squabbling boyfriends on the prowl. The movie drifts into silliness.

The idea that Statham and Foster might have strong feelings for each other is clearly confusing to director West and his screenwriters Lewis John Carlino, who also wrote the original, and Richard Wenk. They get around this by making sure one of the victims is a gay man.

The bait will be Foster, stroking his little dog. This is so cliched, so arch, that it actually throws the movie out of whack. The same stereotypical situation -- bad gay man and a puppy dog -- was used in "The Eiger Sanction," from 1975.

I will give the movie one respectful nod. A problem occurs in hitman world, and Statham confronts Tony Goldwyn, his boss of all bosses, essentially threatening to eliminate him if he doesn't watch himself. Goldwyn delivers one the best bits of dialogue I've ever heard in an action movie.

"Oh yeah," says Goldwyn to Statham, "well, I'm gonna put such a high price on your head that when you look at yourself in the mirror, your reflection is gonna shoot you in the face."

If only the movie had been half as good as that line.

"The Way Back" is a strange blend, a production from the National Geographic Society (yes, the magazine people) and the Polish Film Institute that celebrates a supposed heroic deed from World War II. The movie was literally thrown into the marketplace mere days before its Friday opening, with little or no fanfare -- little in the top 10 markets, none around the rest of the country. That it's gaining an audience is a tribute to positive word of mouth.

The dramatic film is inspired by what has been called a true story. True or not, it's terrific. At the beginning of World War II, Stalin's Soviet gulags were in full operation. A group of men, including some Poles and an American who was working in Russia and was imprisoned, plot their escape. They hope to reach India, 4,000 miles away.

Directed by the great Peter Weir, with wonderful cinematography by Russell Boyd, "The Way Back" is a genuine surprise -- a gripping, sometimes shocking, often awe-inspiring movie about the thirst for freedom. History on film is seldom better than this.

The acting by Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Jim Sturgess and Saoirse Ronan, among others, is topnotch.

It's even nominated for a Best Makeup Academy Award. Consider the movie highly recommended.

E-mail Michael Calleri at michaelcallerimoviesnfr@yahoo.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Feb. 1, 2011