Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Mechanic: Recoding Gay Subtext

There would ordinarily not be much to note about the Mechanic, a formulaic thriller seemingly dredged up from the old '70s action stockpile as a vehicle for Jason Statham, except for one thing: it's gay subtext, which makes this somewhat predictable assassin blood-fest interesting to dissect.

First, let's note that with the Transporter films, Statham has become a bit of a gay icon. It's not simply that his athletic, otter frame has captured notice amongst the community, but also that he often plays aggressive loners, the type who travel outside the norms of society and whose personal lives are a bit of a cipher. For you straight men think of Statham as the male equivalent of Keira Knightly: British, versatile, and saucy. If you like the type, rurr......

Add to that Ben Foster (another actor with a growing gay following) as his acolyte, Steve, and it's no wonder the movie has garnered advertisements in local gay mags.

Yet this film delivers more blood-porn than gay romance. Statham plays Arthur Bishop, a hired assassin whose thing is to make his victim's deaths look like an accident. He's good at what he does (his first kill involves drowning a man by hiding his his swimming pool and then making it seem like the dead man is still swimming). The opening touch evokes some sense of male intimacy - and with Bishop's affection for classical music and modernist architecture, this very well could be the modern gay assassin. But the movie insists on keeping Arthur's straight cover, giving him a buxom prostitute to have sex with so that we know where his predilections are supposed to lie.

When Arthur is instructed to assassinate his mentor Harry (Donald Sutherland), he soon finds that Harry's uncontrollable son, Steve (Ben Foster) has all the makings of a young assassin himself. (I must say that Foster does an excellent job here of playing the scary, on-the-edge, over-the-top psycho role that he ever seems to be perfecting.) What Steve lacks is discipline, but Arthur takes him under his wing and into his home.

For Steve's first murder, he needs to kill another assassin from a rival organization - a big strapping gay man with an affinity for young boys and chihuahuas, which Steve is set up to exploit by adopting a dog and striking a pose at the local coffee shop. When the guy spots Steve and takes him home for a romp in bed, it isn't exactly a clean kill: more rage than the precision Arthur has perfected. There's several interesting suggestions being unintentionally posed here: How much is Steve really into this role play with gay sex? Is the rival gay assassin more of a man than either Arthur or Steve? Is all this violence just a way of sublimating the homoerotic attraction between Steve and his target? Between Arthur and Steve? Is all this debate about how to be a good killer just another type of gay lover's spat?

As the movie goes along it has no intention of answering any of these questions, just teasing us more as it keeps its homo eroticism coded enough to attract a general audience who just wants to see bloody killing. The only definitely straight man seems to be a big, fat religious sissy who's assassinated while lusting over teenage girls. Thus you are asked to read Arthur and Steve as any flavor you like - big homos or big homo haters - as long as you pay your ten dollars admission.

The original Mechanic was also noted for its "homoerotic bond" between the two male assassins. Not much has changed in this update, which is a shame since it misses a great opportunity to go beyond Seventies gay subtext and introduce the idea of two gay male assassins who also dance around a potential relationship.

And maybe I've made more of this than I should. I admit it was the only really interesting thing I found in the film. The rest of the bits about shady assassin organizations and assignments to kill one's mentor felt like the stock Seventies schlock it was.

So I can't say that the film is any better than the original. Though it's a fair guess that Statham may be more your type than Bronson, and this version of The Mechanic may be a little more aware of its potential audiences than the first. Even so, it hardly deals with its conflation of coded homo eroticism and violence any better than they did forty years ago, which is a shame.

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