First things first, and get your knuckles ready: I’m not all-the-way sold on Jason Statham the way so many of y’all are. He seems to be a workhorse, which is surely a respectable quality, and he’s one of the few action-only action stars making it to multiplexes in this current era, where so many action movies are headlined by prestige actors who’d rather be working on an Academy Award speech. Those are two big compliments. Now for the rest.
One problem I have with Statham: the movies themselves. They’re slighter than they need to be, by measure of posterity. Statham hasn’t yet received the defining myth-making star vehicle, the one that cements his onscreen persona. Clint Eastwood had A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. Chow Yun-Fat had THE KILLER. Bruce Willis had DIE HARD. Sylvester Stallone had two: ROCKY and FIRST BLOOD, the yin and yang of his mumbly essence. Arnold Schwarzenegger was gifted with several: THE TERMINATOR and its first sequel, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, COMMANDO, and PREDATOR. By contrast, Jason Statham has the TRANSPORTER movies, which are sturdy, efficient, and well-directed entertainments. They’re not distinctive, they don’t feel epic or definitive. They kind of bleed together. As for the CRANK movies, I know a lot of dudes and bros like them a lot, but to me they feel over-stylized, over-aggressive; trying too hard. I’m an Eastwood man, son. A true tough guy knows when to slow it down. The first one Statham has made that has really held my interest is SAFE, which was a bit of a riff on THE PROFESSIONAL, Chinatown style. It felt like a step in the right direction, by paying attention to strength of character rather than strength of coolness.
Statham does not have the forceful stillness of Eastwood or Chow or Charles Bronson. He’s too talkative for that, which is fine. But he doesn’t have the pugnacious insouciance of Bruce Willis or Kurt Russell (he’s good at glowering but he doesn’t seem like he’d be fun at a party), he doesn’t have a Rocky/Rambo type of duality like Stallone (who alternates between underdog and alpha dog), and he’s definitely not as hilariously weird as Arnold Schwarzenegger (‘that pile of muscles has an accent!’). We know what Jason Statham isn’t, so now we need to know more about what he is.
In his best-known movies, the ones that aren’t CRANKs or TRANSPORTERs — the Guy Ritchie movies, THE ITALIAN JOB, the EXPENDABLES — he seems most at ease in an ensemble, playing the beta male to a Wahlberg or a Stallone. He’s plenty tough, but he doesn’t mind if someone else looks tougher. He’s bald, he’s British, he’s an ex-male model, he wants to be an action hero in America. Look, an American action hero can be bald, or British, or an ex-male-model, but all three at once? That’s a tall order. He’s certainly the only professional action star who was in an Erasure video.
Right now Statham cuts a rather arbitrary figure of fierceness. He’s an action hero by default, because everyone else starring in action movies is either in a superhero costume or Johnny Depp. Maybe, to be truly interesting and unique, Statham should embrace some of those dichotomies and specific details, some of which are relatable and some not. Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel are examples of action guys who have had success playing to the metrosexual (for lack of a better word) aspects of their personas; they’re big and bad but also hairless and vain, and noticeably self-aware. Statham’s toughness is more general, less specific, and so — to me — it suffers: He barks well, and we do believe he can bite, but does his bite do any lasting damage?
All of that is to say, and to speed things up here, HOMEFRONT, the movie in front of us today, is ultimately passable but unmemorable. It’s based on an old Sylvester Stallone script — again, Statham is playing beta to Stallone’s alpha, and Stallone isn’t even there! HOMEFRONT doesn’t serve Statham as far as building his legend, and it isn’t much more than diverting on its own merits. How about this: Why don’t I tell you what I personally wanted out of HOMEFRONT and then we can assess it on that basis. I guess if you want somebody else’s opinions you can go visit their review. This isn’t high art so I’m not going to write about it as if it were, even if I did use the phrase “pugnacious insouciance” a few sentences back.
HOMEFRONT is based on a series of crime novels by Vietnam vet Chuck Logan. The lead character, Phil Broker, played here by Statham, is a DEA agent with a military background who quits that life and goes to live a quieter existence under a different name, with his young daughter. They live an idyllic country existence, for a while, before an unpleasant encounter with a local meth addict leads to Broker running afoul of her dealer brother, who in turn figures out who Broker is and calls in some of his old enemies. Following SAFE, the most interesting thing about HOMEFRONT are Statham’s surprisingly engaged interactions with a child actor — his character’s care for his daughter, and the genuine way Statham plays it, give the movie what heart it has.
Stallone wrote a script for HOMEFRONT a decade ago. Quite honestly, it feels like a story that’s been on the shelf a while. This easily could have been a Stallone movie, ten or twenty years ago. As it is, it’s as much of a throwback as ESCAPE PLAN, the movie Stallone ended up making (with Schwarzenegger), was. Stallone gave his blessing to Statham to star in it, but as I was getting at in the first half of this piece, you can’t just swap out one action hero for another — or shouldn’t, anyway. What would have worked just fine for Stallone feels a little off with Statham in the lead. Of course, that’s not the most apparent sore thumb.
What made the prospect of HOMEFRONT exciting, the wacky high concept that is so intriguing it just might have worked, is the fact that the dealer brother, the main villain of the piece, is played by James Franco. Franco is a guy who is known for just about everything — gross-out comedy, straight-faced drama, arthouse experiments, big-budget franchises — except for a movie like this one, a down-and-dirty mid-budget action thriller. No doubt that’s what drew him to it. James Franco is such an odd figure in contemporary pop culture, wandering through different media with a seemingly limitless schedule. (Where does he find the time?) Some people crack on him for trying on so many hats, but I think he’s great. He’s a multi-talented prankster with a lot of crazy ideas. Having him play an action-movie villain in a Jason Statham movie is like having the unpredictable, pre-Disney 1990s Johnny Depp or Robert Downey Jr. do the same in a Stallone vehicle. It’s noticeably weird, and that makes it interesting. The idea of a movie where a demented James Franco torments a growling Jason Statham for two hours is tantalizing — it sounds like Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, but with more explosions. Imagine you’re watching one of those TRANSPORTER movies and then this guy shows up…?
Unfortunately, what we ended up with, as far as HOMEFRONT goes, is a movie where everyone plays it straight. That’s a miscalculation of tone. The director, Gary Fleder, has made some very good things and some flavorless things. It’s not nice to call someone a “hired gun” but it does imply they generally hit what they’re aiming at. This time around he goes through the motions without any flair. The cinematographer is Theo Van De Sande, whose best work can be found in genre movies like BLADE and THE HOLE — otherwise he can more often be found pointing the camera at Adam Sandler and his buddies in movies like GROWN UPS, JUST GO WITH IT, and GROWN UPS 2. Good lighting, anyway.
The point is, no one behind the HOMEFRONT camera is the kind of madman who’s going to do something great with the Statham-versus-Franco high concept. And apparently Franco worked against us, this one time, if what he told MTV is true, and he adjusted his character to be more “human.” That’s not what this movie needed. You go for ‘believable’ with this material and you’re going to come up with ‘boring’, which this is. Unless you’re Michael Mann, if you want to create an indelible action classic you’d better be willing to get outrageous. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. FACE/OFF. THE RAID. Just a couple examples. I do believe, with this pair of lead actors, that kind of blissful calamity could have been achieved. But it wasn’t.
Not only that, but HOMEFRONT has the good sense to cast a terrific actor as an antagonist, only to entirely squander him. Franco’s character, Gator, calls in the evil cavalry, and who should show up but Frank Grillo, so great in Joe Carnahan’s THE GREY and David Ayer’s END OF WATCH, so soon-to-be-huge in the new CAPTAIN AMERICA and PURGE movies. Frank Grillo is an instantly-likable guy’s guy kind of actor who knows how to turn that likability upside down when he plays the heavy. And you immediately buy the idea that this guy can match Jason Statham, if not bring him down. But I’ve already given Frank Grillo more consideration here than this movie gives him. He shows up late in the movie, just long enough to leave a sad echo when he leaves it.
It’s the problem with the movie in a nutshell. The filmmakers fail to create one single villain out of this thing. Clancy Brown, an estimable character actor who can do intimidating in his sleep, passes through the movie, but nope, he doesn’t take Statham on. Chuck Zito appears at the very end, but by then it’s too late. The movie could’ve used a bruiser like Chuck long before then. Instead, with all of the attempts to humanize the villains, there’s no one left to present a real problem for the hero. There’s never a moment in HOMEFRONT where you feel Broker or his daughter are in danger. The little girl is constantly in harm’s way but someone’s always looking out for her — there’s even a moment where Franco is about to shoot Statham, and he takes the time to tell the kid not to watch. How thoughtful! These villains are pussycats. I’ll tell you how bad it gets: One of them is Winona Ryder!
Gator, Franco’s character, is the most reasonable meth kingpin you’ll ever meet. He doesn’t really want to mess with Broker, but the situation keeps getting dumped on his front door. Gator’s mess of a sister (a horrendously miscast Kate Bosworth) keeps poking and prodding Broker, after a small schoolyard skirmish between their kids. This thing all starts because Broker’s daughter gets picked on at school. Poor Gator just wants to run his business, a big fish in a small pond. But when a Statham-sized orca lands in the pond, he’s got to find a way to deal with it. And he tries a lot of ways, before finally standing up for himself, which goes about as well as you expect. It’s the inverse of THREE O’CLOCK HIGH, only Gator is the desperately nervous nebbish and Statham is Buddy Revell.
I’ve beat up on this movie enough, but it should again be said that I was moderately entertained throughout. You know how some parents put on Hanna-Barbera cartoons to keep their kids busy? Hanna-Barbera cartoons are mediocre at best, but they’re just interesting enough for a pre-adolescent to zone out on. Well, this is the kind of movie that keeps a guy like me just occupied enough. It’s pretty forgettable but with any luck, I’ve used its example to illustrate a point. The truly memorable action movies can galvanize an audience — they can make you stand up and cheer by the end. HOMEFRONT has several of the proper ingredients to make fireworks, but it quietly burns out before it even gets airborne.
Silver lining: There is a brief scene where Jason Statham chases a cat through a meth lab. To my knowledge, no other movie has that to offer. May it cosmically serve, in an alternate universe, as a kernel from whence a much stranger movie can grow.
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