The Cockney hardman who is Britain’s most bankable star in Hollywood

by Vanessa Thorpe

The Observer

Clipped vowels, a suggestion of impeccable breeding: when it comes to Hollywood’s appetite for British and Irish actors it is easy to see why producers keep shopping on these islands. It does not matter whether the stars really went to Eton, the public school sheen on Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Orlando Bloom, Toby Stephens, Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne is dazzling. It makes them ideal for dashing romantic leads in costume dramas and, with age, for nasty villains.

Yet none of these actors is the top British box office earner. The man who towers over them like a colossus in terms of British blockbusting appeal is street trader’s son Jason Statham, a former Olympic diver. And at 45, the actor is at a crossroads in his action hero career.

Spotted by Guy Ritchie in the late 1990s when he was modeling for French Connection, Statham was cast as an East London gangster type, opposite his old friend English actor and former footballer Vinnie Jones, in Ritchie’s early hit, “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” Since then he has worked his way up into the major international league and is now that rare beast, a fully-fledged English, no-stunt-double-required-thanks, action hero.

Chosen to play Parker, a tough character previously portrayed by both Lee Marvin and Mel Gibson, in the 2013 film of that name, Statham has also recently appeared in two of the biggest action franchises, “The Expendables” and “Fast & Furious,” after serving an apprenticeship in the “Crank” and “Transporter” series. The actor has also had high-profile relationships with two of the most photographed British women of the past decade, Kelly Brook and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, both lingerie models-turned-actresses.

Last month Statham broadened his range by appearing in “Hummingbird,” the dark and violent story of a war veteran who is living on the streets in London. Written by Steven Knight, the man who penned the screenplay for Stephen Frears’ 2002 “Dirty Pretty Things,” it is an attempt to blend a contemporary social issue with a revenge film format.

“It is different to what I normally do. There are a lot more layers,” said Statham. “A lot of the characters I play are invincible in some way. They are not tuned into anxiety and pain. This one still plays to some of my strengths, though. It isn’t light years away from something I thought I could get my shoes on for.”

Many critics have saluted Statham’s attempt to develop his “brand” by trying more adventurous parts. English critic Mark Kermode, who once praised Statham for sticking to what he did best, has lately given his approval to the new, questing Statham, an actor now flexing his acting muscles and not just his biceps.

The film critic, who says Statham’s name with an approximation of his low, gruff cockney, likes the chance the actor took with “Hummingbird” and also admires his 2011 film “Blitz,” co-starring Paddy Considine. On the whole, though, Kermode, like many Statham fans, prefers what he calls “pure Statham.”

“He has developed a very interesting career doing the thing that he does, which is take his suit off and fight in a straight action film,” said Kermode, adding, “Frankly in a Jason Statham movie nobody cares about the women.”

Tellingly, it is “Hummingbird” and “Blitz,” two London tales that aim at greater dramatic purchase, that are the worst box office performers among Statham’s recent films.

Charles Gant, film editor of British celebrity magazine Heat, is not convinced by “Hummingbird,” the latest of the actor’s more “experimental” films. “A lot of Statham’s character-driven work has been British, films such as “The Bank Job” and “Blitz.” He is trying to be less formulaic, but for me, ‘Hummingbird’ doesn’t really work,” said Gant last weekend. “There is plenty of gritty contemporary life on the wrong side of the tracks, but there is also a ridiculous story of revenge. I don’t think the two work together.”

The premiere of the film in London’s West End was attended by a bevy of television stars and, of course, by his girlfriend Huntington-Whiteley, 26, who recently told Glamour magazine what she liked about Statham.

“His knowledge and strength are really inspiring and attractive, and that can come with a man who’s had a bit of time. We have a connection that has nothing to do with age. Work comes and goes, but if you have someone at home who thinks you’re the greatest person in the world, that keeps you going.”

To show her support for the new film she also tweeted a photo of a hummingbird tattoo on her wrist.

Although Statham is a rough diamond on screen, he is a grammar school (a school that selects pupils on the basis of academic ability) boy who was born in Shirebrook, a place that sounds like an English name invented in Hollywood. Shirebrook is actually a former colliery town in Derbyshire, in England’s East Midlands, but the Statham family moved to the coastal town of Great Yarmouth, in Norfolk, east England, when he was young and this is where Statham first met Jones, who introduced him to football. Diving then became an obsession and he spent all his spare time practicing, honing a fearless nerve that has stood him in good stead when performing stunts for the camera.

Reviewing “Transporter 3″ in 2008, Kermode hailed the film as the best installment of the franchise so far. “There’s no denying the manly enjoyment of watching Jason pump it up and peel it off,” he said. “All the Transporter movies feature the same basic elements: Statham in a suit, getting into a shiny black car, taking a “package” (a person) from A to B and stopping to fight people while taking off the suit.”

All the same, the critic argues the actor fits into a noble tradition of celebrating the male body on the big screen that dates back to early “sword and sandal” epics such as the original versions of “Spartacus” and “300.” “There are very few actors working today who understand the power of wearing a great suit and then taking it off on film,” he said.

Although English and Irish actors Ray Winstone and Liam Neeson have established themselves as screen hardmen, neither has been regularly asked to strip to the waist. Recently actors Colin Farrell, Clive Owen and James McAvoy have all tried out action hero roles for size, but they have hedged their bets with straight drama too.

Box office trade for “Hummingbird” in the past two weeks was dented by the appeal of the Wimbledon tennis championships and the Glastonbury music festival, and by an unfair comparison with “Despicable Me 2,” one of the biggest films of the year so far. Action blockbusters “Man of Steel” and “World War Z” occupied second and third places in the charts and Statham’s film crossed the line in fifth place, taking £206,000 on its opening weekend. Earlier in the year, Parker opened with £569,000 and before that, his film “Safe” came in at £680,000, while “Killer Elite,” in which he co-starred with Robert DeNiro, did £481,000 of business.

Statham’s biggest recent openings have been in ensemble casts in “The Expendables” and “Fast & Furious 6,” where he played an uncredited cameo role. And he is coming back soon in “The Expendables 3″ and in “Fast & Furious 7,” where he plays the villain.

Gant points out that a lot of Statham’s value remains in his robust DVD sales, but that he may now carry fewer films on his own name: ” ‘The Expendables’ has been good for him, by keeping him in touch with the audience. To be part of two very big Hollywood franchises is quite a thing and ‘Fast & Furious’ is the biggest of the moment. It has defied gravity by getting bigger and bigger.”

Statham has, Gant said, represented that elusive commodity, “a sure thing” for film producers. “For many years he was definitely in that category. Action goes down well in Asia and the Middle East and in Russia, but it might be that he has now peaked a bit. If you have seen 10 Jason Statham films you are unlikely to be rushing out to see the 11th.”

Gant added that, despite Kelly Brooks’ insistence that she always knew her ex-boyfriend would be the next Hollywood action star, Statham does not have the charisma and humor of a Bruce Willis. All the same, Gant predicts a healthy and wealthy future for the actor: “The reason he has worked so consistently for so long is that his body is not freaky. He does not look like a wrestling star. Guys want to be him, and you can put him in a suit and girls and gay men like him, too.

“Watching ‘Lock, Stock’ now, you would not necessarily pick out Statham as the one to become the big star, but Guy Ritchie definitely saw something real and untrained about him that still works.”