By James Kenney. Originally published at QueensFreePress in 2013.
Just a note to any cineastes creeping around Queens Free Press: Jason Statham, action star, has returned with the DVD release of Stephen Knight’s Redemption today. This might not seem much cause for celebration, especially as this is one of Statham’s dumped on video films (Blitz, Chaos) and not one of his wide-release adrenaline rushes (Transporter, Death Sport, Safe), although on the surface they generally play the same. Watch any random Statham film good chance you’ll find he plays a quiet guy with sad eyes who means no one harm and tries to keep to himself. Alas, some sort of evil organization or mafia warlord or thuggity thug harasses his family, his friends, or some sad-eyed Asian girl on a subway platform, and he is compelled to break out the martial arts he knows because of his obscure background. Which is later revealed to be one of a disgraced cop, disgraced Desert Storm operative, or disgraced kick boxer. Cue fisticuffs, car chases and fisticuffs on top of chasing cars.
So why write about Redemption, particularly when his next, Homefront, is receiving a genuine theatrical release, whereas Redemption played one lonely week on Third Avenue in the Village, where I, my wife and a few other steadfast Statham fans made the trip to watch our brooding-but-capable-of-great-havoc hero?
Well, to be clear, I like the fella. My wife does too, and that’s no small thing, after a multitude of testosterone-driven steroid behemoths posing as action heroes, starting in the 80s with Schwarzenegger and MegaStallone. These were followed by unrelatable martial artists (Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme) and a slew of Wrestler types (most notably the Rock). In Statham, a one-time Olympic swimmer, we have a hero with an observably human build, one that my wife apparently likes to observe. The guy’s losing his hair, for god’s sake, and unlike Bruce W. makes no attempt to hide it.
Directors have recognized some tangible acting ability, with Statham having worked for Guy Ritchie repeatedly back when it was cool and showing some actual feeling in key sequences of the underrated Roger Donaldson heist flick The Bank Job. And those sad eyes say so much; he convincingly expresses held-in emotion, always a plus in sensitive action heroes, and in a knowingly colorless way brings some sense of gravitas to the otherwise outlandish proceedings in a film such as the hyperactive and amusing Safe. So it goes this time out, when he plays a homeless vet who teams up with (and falls for) a Polish nun while avenging a friend’s death as he ultimately rises in the Chinese mafia.
I know, I know. But still, if none of this convinces you, dear reader, let me discuss the man behind the film, Stephen Knight. Knight, the Oscar-nominated writer of Dirty Pretty Things, is the writer and first-time director of Redemption, and while it is clearly an action film, it is also clearly a third in a trilogy (well, I’m calling it that) of films he’s written involving the seamier sides of London and what immigrants and the disenfranchised do to survive in it. The indelible Dirty Pretty Things was followed by the more-action oriented but still thoughtful David-Cronenberg-directed Eastern Promises, and now this. Knight has genuine empathy, curiosity and perceptiveness when it comes to the lonely lives and shattered existences of those living on the fringe of a metropolis overflowing with color and noise, and while Redemption is the least nuanced of the three, it is a film full of off-center characterizations, eccentric story developments, and unanticipated grace notes built around the steadfast engine that is Jason Statham. A post-traumatic stress sufferer from his time in Afghanistan, Statham’s character is constantly under fire even in moments of repose. You can feel him suffering with how to survive with what he knows. Statham underacts so that you feel he’s almost hiding inside of himself, and it works beautifully with this character.
If any more evidence is needed, note the poster image I used above: the film was called Hummingbird upon its U.K. release. If that isn’t the (admittedly horrible-sounding) title of a genuine art film, I don’t know what is. Why the powers-that-be found this film basically unreleasable is beyond me – it has the required body-count and fight scenes to satisfy the action-craving multitudes, but also a little meat on its bones, and seems to me best described as the bastard stepbrother of Knight’s two earlier, high-profile and critically lauded releases; that’s a compliment.
While the film is a bit of a humpback, it is rich in atmosphere and idiosyncrasy and worthy of recognition and discussion among its two accepted-to-university brethren. Rent it, stream it, or illegally download it and curse me after if you must, but I found Redemption a highly memorable and eccentric experience, and Statham a low-key presence which effectively doubles as deadpan wit at all the right moments. As for Knight, it is a imperfect but honorable directorial debut. The recently released-to-theaters Closed-Circuit, a John Crowley-directed film with his script, would seem to carry on the exploration of London-under-surveillance he initiates here. I haven’t seen it. I plan to.