Word to the wise. If you're going to ask Jason Statham something that irks him, you'd best do it by phone. When he's in another city. On another continent. Paris, for instance.
Forget that he was once an Olympic diver, that he was working as a model when he was "discovered" and cast in the movie that made him a star, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The guy's scary tough.
The balding Brit has also pretty much taken over James Brown's "hardest working man in show business" moniker, because nobody makes more movies than Statham. But such movies: The Pink Panther, War (with Jet Li), Crank and most recently, In the Name of the King, a sword-and-sorcery video-game adaptation by action hack Uwe Boll, a German who has earned the nickname "the worst director" in the biz.
"That was four years ago, mate," Statham says in a voice that tells you a head-butt might be coming if he weren't on a phone. "People can make fun all they want. I have many reasons for doing different things, and I did that to work with Tony Ching, one of the great action choreographers on the planet. There's three: Tony Ching, Woo Ping and Corey Yuen. Tony was doing that one, and I had a serious itch to do some swordplay work with Tony.
"Unfortunately, I got injured on the first day. So there you go. But I try to be selective."
And so he has. There are no hard feelings because Statham, 35, is earning his best notices in years for The Bank Job, a heist picture that caused London's Independent to sing his praises, noting that Statham's "action-hero antics may have caused us to forget that he can also act."
It's a film that Statham, famed for his on-screen martial-arts prowess ever since The Transporter, "almost doesn't have to throw a punch in," he says, happily. "I play a dad, a family man, a guy with debts who just happens to get mixed up in a bank robbery."
The Bank Job is a period piece, a true story about a famous 1971 British bank robbery -- or one that should have been famous. This safe-deposit-vault caper caused the government to censor news of it, since the government actually wanted some of those safe deposit boxes robbed.
"But that secretiveness is great for us," Statham says. "It makes the movie a fresh story."
Fresh, too, is the film's approach to "the gang." In the real Baker Street bank robbery, the robbers weren't seasoned pros. They were low-rent characters with minor police records and no experience at this sort of thing. Director Roger Donaldson (The World's Fastest Indian, Thirteen Days) plays around with their ineptitude and blunders even as he is telling a serious story about police corruption and a government willing to call an embarrassing event a "state secret" to keep news of it out of the press.
"It just reminds us that the people breaking the law sometimes are the ones who're supposed to be upholding it," Statham says. "Just because you're working in a suit and a tie in the halls of government, speaking with a posh accent, doesn't mean you're not the bad guy. I love the movie's sense of corruption. It's not just working-class people, poor people, who do things they shouldn't."
He's happy with the good notices for Bank Job, but he's not in Paris on vacation. He's training for the third Transporter movie, another chance for him to show off in fast cars and fisticuffs. The busy Brit has also lined up a sequel to Crank, his gonzo actioner about a crook who discovers he has been poisoned with a drug that will kill him the moment he drops off his adrenaline rush, forcing him to do commit more and more maniacal acts -- criminal and sexual -- to stay alive.
"I'll tell you, I got some weird handshakes [from weird fans] of that one," he says, chuckling. "I laughed so hard I was in tears when I read the script to the sequel."
There's a sequel to The Italian Job called The Brazilian Job on the books. He finished a remake of the B-actioner Death Race, "my first major studio picture. Fun!"
All of which adds up to a picture of a guy who is not just a workaholic, he's something of an adrenaline junkie himself.
"OK, I admit it," he says. "I do a lot of movies because of the action stuff in them. I'm really a car guy. And being athletic, I like doing stuff that could get me hurt, that challenges me, works me over and takes recovery time afterward.
"I sometimes wonder if there's a shortage of people that the film studios think could play these parts, or if they're just determined to place the safe bet -- me!"