Leader of the pack

Fri, May 4, 2012, 01:00

IN 2010, Sylvester Stallone instituted a sort of honours system for contemporary action heroes. If you were offered a role in The Expendables you could reasonably regard yourself as having been inducted into kick-ass royalty. You may now enter the pantheon and sit alongside Baron Dolph Lundgren, Lord Bruce Willis and Earl Jet Li.

One can trace the traditions of action cinema back to the silent era. But the genre as we understand it really came together in the 1980s. It made demigods of Schwarzenegger, Stallone and a dozen other marginally less enormous bruisers. Those men are now approaching retirement age.

Which of the young(ish) pretenders would be granted the Order of The Expendables? The honour went to Jason Statham. Now 44, the Englishman began life as one of a dozen punchy members of Guy Ritchie’s stock company. Stealthily, craftily, unrelentingly, he has manoeuvred his way to the front of the action pack. He was superhumanly animated in The Transporter. He was hilarious in the deranged Crank. Now, he’s splendidly solid as an inconvenienced cage fighter in this week’s superior Safe.

Yes, indeed. Stallone could only have picked Statham.

“I think you’re always surprised in this business,” he says modestly.

“You just don’t know. Every day is a good day when things are going the way they should. Sly and I had a nice lunch together. And now we’re good friends.”

Enter the world of Jason Statham and you fast become aware that he runs his career with ruthless efficiency. No interview lasts longer than 15 minutes. He talks coolly of strategies and goals. Intriguingly, he has a habit of answering questions in the first-person plural. It seems as if he sees himself as the figurehead of a corporate body. He is the CEO of Statham Industries.

“There’s an approach we learnt a long time ago,” he says. “You don’t always get everything you want to get. So, you look for a project about which you can say there are more reasons to do it than not do it. You don’t wait for something perfect. You look for something with promise. With Safe, however, it was already on the page. There was no suggestion they weren’t going to deliver.”

You see what I mean about the disciplined approach. It would not come as a surprise to learn that Statham, raised in East Anglia, had been planning his assault on the film industry since birth. In fact, it all happened by accident. His dad worked on market stalls in Great Yarmouth. Jason spent some time perfecting the wide-boy patter, but soon became distracted by (of all things) competitive diving. He finished 12th at the world championships in 1992 and was a member of the UK squad for more than a decade.

Something of the diver remains. He still has the well-defined upper body. He was, presumably, required to crop his hair years before – proudly resisting plugs and wigs – he became a hero to baldies everywhere. One would guess that this background in such a demanding sport served him in good stead when he turned to action movies. Statham is one of those hard nuts who insists upon doing most of his own stunts.

“It was very useful,” he says. “We did a lot of gymnastics and tumbling.

“All that bred the aerial awareness to be comfortable with how your body moves when it’s not connected to the ground. So it’s very useful if you’re a stuntman. Actually, it’s a requirement for getting on to the stunt register. You have to do diving or trampoline or horse riding or car racing. All these different disciplines that count to the register. That’s good. Isn’t it? Otherwise every prat would be on the stunt register. Wouldn’t he? Ha, ha, ha!”

Statham has charm. He certainly doesn’t come across as a sensitive flower, but he uses your forename and does a good impression of giving a hoot what you think. Mind you, as a terrifyingly focussed professional, he probably sees the press interview as one more job to be dispatched with dedicated efficiency.

At any rate, he had enough charisma to finesse his way from diving to modelling. Then Guy Ritchie spotted his potential. The mock-cockney gets some stick, but Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels helped propel an array of talented English actors – and Vinnie Jones – towards healthy careers. Nick Moran is now a director. Jason Flemyng is rarely out of work. And, as we have seen, Statham is our era’s signature hard nut.

“You say ‘finesse’. I don’t think there was any finessing when it came to being a model,” he laughs. “I put time, with focus and dedication, into diving. A lot of sacrifice comes with being in a competitive sport. The market trading also helped. Working on the streets was something I’d done forever. Then by chance I ended up in a movie. That was just by virtue of meeting Guy Ritchie. Here’s a new path.”

So he was not fulfilling any lifelong ambition? “Nah! I didn’t know I was going to do it. I didn’t know I could do it.

“You never know how far this is going to go. If you have success that allows you to go and do another film. If you don’t then you’re on the scrap heap quickly. But we care a lot about what we do.”

Statham’s gruff way with a line steadily won over enthusiasts for unrestrained cinematic mayhem. The Transporter was a huge hit. A remake of The Italian Job brought him to Hollywood in 2003. Nobody could accuse Statham of being lazy. (And, let’s be honest, even if the accusation were justified, you wouldn’t dare.)

Over the past decade, he has made three or four films a year. Statham’s movies do not involve much sitting around on couches discussing Helena Bonham Carter’s latest betrothal. If he’s not being flung from a helicopter, he’s dangling dangerously from a suspension bridge. Barely a moment goes by without him being smashed in his impassive face.

“We’ve done a lot of martial arts training,” he says, falling back into that corporate plural. “But it’s important to remember that – whether you’ve done martial arts, kickboxing or whatever – it’s very different to what you do in film. It’s much more exaggerated. But it teaches you how to move on your feet, how to get out of the way of things. It’s a foundation for what we do on film.”

If Stathamites find anything to object to in Safe – and they probably won’t – their whinges may be about the emphasis on firepower over naked brawn. That’s to say Statham shoots many more people than he punches. I guess that’s still a dangerous business. “Oh, I’m very cautious with pyrotechnics,” he says. “A squib has a mind of its own. They can blow up in unpredictable ways. Hot shell-casing is flying everywhere. You’ve really got to make sure you know what you’re doing.”

Statham cannot control every aspect of his professional life. Though he comes across as an amiable guy, it is clear he doesn’t much enjoy aggressive invasions of his privacy. He almost never discusses his two high-profile romances. (He was attached to Kelly Brook, the model and TV presenter, for a full seven years. Since April 2010, he has been dating Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.) He will pull together a smile when strolling along the red carpet. But he doesn’t enjoy finding journalists in the undergrowth.

“Privacy is an issue,” he says. “Now that can be a pain in the arse. People following you around? I can’t understand how that can be an enjoyable day. And there is more and more of it. More magazines, more photographers. It’s feeding itself. It’s always there.”

Still, there are compensations. Jason now divides his time between Los Angeles and the south London suburb of Dulwich. It’s hard to imagine him ever becoming properly American. Indeed, he admits to missing “the British people” when he’s abroad. Really? I’d guess that, every now and then, a misguided geezer must try and pick a fight with him. Clobbering Baron Jason – the ruling action hero of the day – would earn the average bruiser quite serious bloke points.

“Well, I’ve been lucky,” he says. “But who knows. There’s always somebody round the corner who’s going to throw a left or a right. I’m sure that’s true. But hopefully I won’t be in that environment. I won’t be where there’s somebody who’s had 18 pints and is waiting to beat me up.” I’d like to see them try.