The Man Behind The Man

Without wanting to batter on about how witheringly ancient we are, it’s probably important to explain a little bit about why Iain and I love action movies and why we settled on Jason Statham as a touchstone for Lee Butler, the lead character in The Edge Off. In fact, the name Lee Butler is itself a nod to the Stath, combining two of his character names, Lee Christmas from The Expendables and Sgt. Jericho Butler from Ghosts of Mars.

For me, it all stems from us both growing up in small towns back in the days when a budding film lover had to make do with the selection from the local video store, where you’d go in maybe looking for a copy of Pulp Fiction but end up having to make do with American Ninja 4 or No Retreat, No Surrender. So when Hollywood actually started spending some money on the likes of Beverly Hills Cop, Cobra, Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, Iain and I were the perfect age to be swept up in a love for uncomplicated, unabashed action films that finally had the budgets to make them truly spectacular viewing. For anyone hankering after that little hint of Cannon camp, there was Bloodsport, Roadhouse, Tango & Cash and Jackie Chan’s sensational Police Story. It was park your brain cinema, with simple straightforward stories, amazing stunts and bad guys getting repeatedly punched in the face. More importantly, Action Films were (to me, anyway) your best shot as a video store patron of value for money. Of getting what you paid for. That’s something you come to appreciate if it’s the 1980s and your skint, a student or on the dole.

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These films also built action stars, your Stallones your Schwarzeneggers, your Seagals. And then that all seemed to tail off. Around about Last Action Hero, the bloated and tired franchises that made action films seemed to be more or less on the wane. Your “bubble gum for the brain” action flick started to become a rarity. Until that is, a certain Mr Statham came along.

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Like most people, I’d have seen him first in Lock Stock… and I certainly didn’t see a guy who would lead a revival of action cinema then. But he’s gone on the star in massive action franchises and help revive the genre probably more than any other actor. However, in between the more straightforward action offerings he’s made a few movies that really stand out like Revolver, Killer Elite (which also features a rare late career decent performance from Robert De Niro), Hummingbird and Safe.

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Revolver, written by Guy Ritchie and Luc Besson, is an ambitious and deliberately obscure film that casts Statham as a confidence man who has learned a universal formula guaranteeing success with any con. It’s a film that focuses on the toxic flaws of ego and is littered with Kabbalistic ideas which Ritchie was interested in at the time. If it is not entirely successful (it wasn’t a hit) it was certainly an attempt to make a different, more cerebral action film and has aged well over time.

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Killer Elite is a tense and complex thriller about Danny Bryce, an assassin who agrees to kill three former SAS soldiers after a friend (De Niro) botches the job, a failure that means the friend will be killed if the job is not completed successfully. They are unaware however that the men they are after belong to a secret society of former SAS operatives who have their own enforcer (Clive Owen). This a dark, violent and often melancholy film about men who find themselves unable to escape from a cycle of recrimination and death. Every loose end mopped up is in fact another wound opened, another spin of the wheel.

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Safe is just a marvellously schlocky action film about an ex-cop turned cage fighter who finds himself the only man standing between a plethora of baddies and a gifted little girl who is being used by Chinese Triads as a kind of human database, thanks to her ability to memorise complex numerical patterns. Is Statham up to the job of keeping her safe? I highly recommend you seek the film out to find out.

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Hummingbird is a film that looks at a common theme in Statham’s movies, a man trying and failing to escape his violent past. There’s a pervasive sense of doom throughout the film, which follows the life of a homeless ex-servicemen who becomes obsessed with finding the man who murdered his sister.  When he makes the opportunistic decision to assume someone else’s identity, it helps him develop a closeness with a nun who runs a local soup kitchen but he remains trapped in a world where his only bankable skill is his ability to hurt people. The film touches on themes of alienation, hopelessness and PTSD, with Statham’s character occasionally hallucinating and recounting details of his service in Afghanistan. It also includes a scene where he terrifies a street thug with a spoon, so worth watching just for that, really.

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Statham acted as a physical template for Lee from The Edge Off but more than that, his brand of unabashed, non-ironic action story helped fuel its soul, providing the solidity, the recognisable “rules” of the action film that are baked into us all. That unshakable narrative shorthand we then spiked with hallucinogens and shadowy surrealism to create something that seems just familiar enough that you don’t see it coming when we pull that rug out from under you.

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The Edge Off emerged from the idea of taking a straight-up noir/action story and seeing how we could blend that with other stuff we’re into. But that shouldn’t be mistaken for any disdain for a genre we’ve both loved since childhood. It’s a genre saved and refined by Statham more than anyone else in recent years and frankly, that means he can terrorise the two us with a spoon any time he likes.


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