How Jason Statham Became an Action Icon
Looking at the cast of 2010’s The Expendables, Jason Statham might seem like your typical blockbuster action star alongside Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but his meteoric rise to success in the 00s is something truly unique. It took the vision of a handful of cutting-edge directors to take Statham from a non-actor to a household name in less than a decade.
Though Statham had hustled an entertainment industry-adjacent career modelling and dancing in music videos, before he met Guy Ritchie he’d never been an actor. Ritchie saw raw talent in Statham, and was reportedly excited to cast a former black market jewelry seller. Statham became an ensemble scene-stealer, along with non-acting football bruiser Vinnie Jones, in Ritchie’s first film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
Ritchie saw the natural charisma in the soft-spoken Brit, and in what would define his early career, an ability to play the perfect comedic straight man. Watch any scene with Statham in Ritchie’s movies and you can marvel and the timing and control in his performance. He even pulls out some amazing vaudeville-style silent acting when a scene really needs some comedic punctuation.
By Ritchie’s next films Snatch and Revolver, Statham had earned lead credits alongside actors like Brad Pitt and Ray Liotta, but he still wasn’t living up to his potential. If Statham’s meeting Guy Ritchie was serendipity and an eye for natural talent, his discovery by Corey Yuen was a reward for years of hard work and training.
After Snatch, Hollywood’s characterization of Jason Statham was that of a wisecracking action star, and he was often cast as comic relief. It was in a comedic action role that he first worked with action choreographer Corey Yuen, training for a fight scene with Jet Li. Though the fight was eventually cut, in training with Statham, Yuen discovered that he was not only trained in multiple martial arts but he’d been doing so with a desire to be a stuntman.
Hollywood action films in the 80s and 90s had made stars of more traditional actors and physical specimens, like Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise, rather than the stunt men of earlier eras. On the other hand, Hong Kong action releases in the 90s exposed the world to Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun Fat and revealed just how thrilling an actor/stunt person could be. Corey Yuen came from this tradition, but strict insurance rules and studio contracts in America made it harder for him to choreograph like he had back in Hong Kong. The prospect of a rising actor excited and willing to do his own stunts must have seemed like a godsend.
When Yuen teamed up with European action producer Luc Besson and director Luis Leterrier for The Transporter, things got even more fortuitous. Besson was inspired by a series of short films featuring Clive Owen and was thrilled at the prospect of a fistfighting stuntman who was also a moody Brit, and quickly cast him in The Transporter. Statham’s physical abilities allowed Yuen’s choreographed fight scenes to be shot without the usual cuts of 2000s action films. He also easily switches from stunts, to complex driving sequences, to dry wit in a way that Hong Kong stars struggled with when they crossed over into Hollywood.
The Transporter was such breath of fresh air for action audiences that it spawned two sequels with Statham, and even continued without him as a TV series, including a recent reboot. Statham would continue to do his own stunts whenever possible, and quickly became a go-to lead who brought the action in a movie to the next level. But Jason Statham had one more mountain to climb: he needed to ascend to the iconic heights of Schwarzenegger or Stallone and the meme-like status of Chuck Norris or Bruce Lee.
Thankfully filmmakers Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor saw the chance to take Statham to the next level with their bizarre action experiment Crank. Crank definitely isn’t for everyone – it’s crude, frenetic and sometimes purposefully ugly – but it stands out as a unique film within its genre. The strange visual style, driven by their signature “rollercam” in which the directors-as-cameramen literally rollerblade along with the action, and loaded plot demanded a strong lead to ground the film. With a character like Chev Chelios, a man merely out for revenge before he dies, Neveldine/Taylor relied on one thing to bring the movie together: Jason Statham.
Chelios gets very little introduction or backstory in Crank, and it’s up to the audience to basically nod, understand, and think “...this man is Jason Statham.” The chaos of the film is happening to the person who for the past half decade had punched, swore and drove his way through movies popularly enjoyed by audiences. Crank must truly be seen to be believed, and there is no doubt that Jason Statham was 100% committed to every moment of it. With Statham turning in his most Statham-y performance, Neveldine/Taylor allow the profanity and existential dread of the plot twists and comedic nonsense to wash over him. This simultaneously gives the audience something to hold onto, and solidifies Statham’s stature as a legend in and of himself.
In a decade, keen-eyed directors boosted Jason Statham and took him from an unknown shirt model to a man so synonymous with action films he could unquestionably stand alongside the action gods of the previous decade. It was a rise so quick and definite that, by the time he starred in 2015’s Spy, many critics were praising his “unseen” comedic chops, even though they’re exactly what had got him discovered in the first place. The most exciting thing about a career like Jason Statham’s is that he was able to re-invent himself so many times in a decade, his fans never know what future directors might see in him, or where he might end up.