Jason Statham specializes in action movies, especially crime thrillers where he plays some variation on a special forces agent who doesn’t talk a lot but can fold you in half with a punch. But every once in a while, he steps out of that familiar zone and lets some weirdness infiltrate his tough-guy typecasting. And we love it.
We’re not saying there’s anything wrong with Statham’s go-to persona. We dig him in the Transporter movies, the Expendables movies, the Fast and Furious movies, and his extensive list of films with short titles and tons of fisticuffs and bullets (The Mechanic, Parker, Wild Card, etc. etc.) But there’s something extra delightful about putting such a no-nonsense man of action smack in the center of a fantastical genre movie. You can see him fight a big-ass ancient shark in The Meg, which is out in theaters now, and then you can head home, go a few rounds with your punching bag, pour yourself a stiff drink, and binge-watch his other genre efforts.
While we wait for a movie that sends the current, older and more weathered version of Statham to space (why hasn’t this happened yet?), John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars—a total B-movie that I happen to love, though I realize I’m in the minority there—will have to do. (It came out in 2001, and Carpenter hasn’t made a theatrical feature since then, which may be part of the reason it’s looked upon with suspicion.) Statham, fresh off Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, plays Sgt. Jericho Butler, a cocky cop who’s part of a team wrangling a dangerous prisoner (played by Ice Cube) out of a Martian mining colony. At first, he’s more focused on hitting on his lieutenant (Natasha Henstridge) than the mission—even after she shuts him down by telling him “Maybe I’d sleep with you if you were the last man on Earth...but we’re not on Earth.”
But he proves useful when things start getting hairy, which they do very quickly, and Statham’s ability to stay both composed and badass while conveying shocked disgust makes you wonder why he hasn’t signed on for more horror-themed tales. His character beholds some awfully nasty stuff; it’s through his eyes that we get our first glimpse of “Big Daddy Mars,” leader of the Martian mutants who’ve overrun the settlement, and the sort of monster who’s fond of raising human heads to the sky and bellowing with demonic glee. Shortly thereafter, Jericho makes a solid argument in favor of all the human characters sticking together, including the bad guys who make fun of his accent.
Statham has made a few movies with Jet Li, but this 2001 sci-fi action flick is their very first collaboration. The One, which has a soundtrack laden with unfortunate nu-metal jams, imagines that there are over 100 known multiverses, though travel between them is restricted by agents of the Multiverse Authority. Statham plays one such agent in pursuit of Yulaw (the most dastardly version of Jet Li’s character), who’s been illegally making his way through a series of wormholes, killing, uh, himself in each universe, gaining superpowers as he absorbs more and more life forces. Thing is, when he gets to the final version of himself, that guy—who’s a totally nice LA cop named Gabe—is just as powerful as he is, since the remaining juju is evenly divided between them. This makes for some awesome Jet Li versus Jet Li battles, and while you would think there’d be no room for Statham in all this, he actually plays a pivotal role.
Left to handle the case basically by himself after Yulaw murders his partner (Delroy Lindo), he manages to convince the skeptical Gabe of the existence of the multiverse, break down the wacky logic that dictates that neither Gabe nor Yulaw can be killed, and wave around a wormhole detector that makes him look an awful lot like Al on Quantum Leap. He manages to execute all of that mumbo-jumbo with his trademark gruff gravitas intact. Plus, in the end, he gets to pull a real hero move when he secretly arranges for Gabe to return not to the grim reality where he’ll be blamed for all the crimes of his evil doppelgänger—but to the happiest version of any universe.
The Crank movies, which came out in 2006 and 2009, may be enjoyed as one single, unbroken, teeth-rattling jaunt if you have enough time and mental endurance. As Crank begins, the delightfully named Chev Chelios (Statham) realizes he must keep his adrenaline levels sky-high, lest he succumb to the poison lurking in his body which will kill him if he calms down. He’s basically a human version of the Speed bus. While he’s trying to track down the rival hitman who injected him with the deadly cocktail—and keep his pulse pumping by getting into fights, speeding, groping his girlfriend, guzzling Red Bull and various other chemical countermeasures, etc.—the movie keeps pace with split-screens, wacky editing, glimpses of Chev’s heart fluttering in his chest, sudden bursts of frantic music, and other stylistic quirks designed to keep the viewer on edge just like Chev. Even though he plunges from very, very high in the sky in the final scene, his peculiar affliction keeps him alive—and the madness continues in High Voltage.
In the sequel, which picks up soon after Chev crashes to the ground in part one, a gangster steals his apparently indestructible heart for...reasons. In its place, Chev gets an artificial heart that has to be dramatically recharged once an hour, which sounds simple on paper but plays out with exponential ridiculousness onscreen. High Voltage’s give-no-fucks tone means it contains some unfortunate racial stereotypes, and as well as a depiction of women that tends to be, shall we say, problematic. But it also means we’re treated to the sight of Statham donning a dog-training shock collar, plunging his hands into a power transformer, scaling an electrical pole and setting himself on fire, and—in a generally freaky movie’s most surreal sequence, which is saying a lot, since High Voltage also contains a sentient severed head—engaging in brawl in middle of a power plant in which he and his opponent briefly transform into giant, supercharged monsters.
Statham eventually made his way into the Fast and Furious franchise, but a few years prior he starred in Resident Evil auteur Paul W.S. Anderson’s remake of Roger Corman’s grindhouse classic Death Race 2000. In truth, Death Race is more “inspired by” than a real remake; made in 2008 but set in 2012, it imagines a future where convicts at America’s many for-profit prisons are forced to compete in high-speed, high-stakes races that are broadcast to a bloodthirsty viewing public. Statham plays Jensen, a steel mill worker (also, conveniently, an ex-con and a former speedway champion) who’s framed for the murder of his wife.
It doesn’t take long before the warden (Joan Allen, part of a surprisingly good supporting cast that also includes Jason Clarke and American Gods’ Ian McShane) ropes him into participating in the Death Race, where he assumes the identity of deceased fan favorite Frankenstein (one of few ties to the O.G. film). Once Jensen realizes the entire race is rigged to maximize ratings—and also just how corrupt the warden and her cronies really are—he teams up with another driver (Tyrese Gibson, another star of the Fast and Furious series) and they plot a spectacular escape. Giving Jensen the underlying motivation of wanting to reunite with his young daughter is a melodramatic extra touch, but Statham—who also gets to drive fast, snap some necks, fire guns, launch napalm, and flirt with his “co-pilot” (Natalie Martinez)—mostly sells it, even the corny “my kid makes me a better person” voice-over that’s tacked on at the end.
Statham ventures daringly into comedy in this 2015 James Bond homage, which stars Melissa McCarthy as a meek but secretly brilliant CIA analyst who’s tasked with going undercover when her partner is killed in the field. Statham plays Rick Ford, an arrogant fellow agent who doesn’t believe that she’s capable of pulling off the assignment, so he quits the agency in a huff, then goes rogue and starts shadowing her around Europe. Statham has a great time lampooning his familiar persona here, especially since Ford’s obnoxious and often bumbling interference is the exact opposite of what we expect from a highly skilled secret agent—i.e, the sort of character we’ve seen Statham play a zillion times.
One of Spy’s funniest ongoing gags is Ford’s fondness for bragging about his ludicrous superspy accomplishments: “I’ve jumped from a high-rise building using only a raincoat as a parachute. I broke both legs upon landing and still had to pretend I was in a fucking Cirque du Soliel show...I once drove a car off a freeway, on top of a train, while I was on fire. Not the car—I was on fire!” His deadpan is perfect, his character actually has an arc (from asshole to lovable asshole), and Spy writer Paul Feig has said that if the film’s planned sequel comes together, we’ll be seeing a lot more of Rick Ford.