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Ben Foster plays a Baltimore bad boy in 'The Mechanic'

Ben Foster entered movies as a smart, funny, subversive high school senior in Barry Levinson's "Liberty Heights." Maybe that's why the new action movie, "The Mechanic," set in New Orleans, tosses in the fact that his character was born in Baltimore.

I thought Foster came into his own as an action bad guy playing outlaw Charlie Prince in the 2007 remake of "3:10 to Yuma." When I asked him back then why Western villains were fascinating to performers and audiences alike, he said, "Outlaws are outside the law. And as human beings we like to see people who are not tethered by government, so that they're in conflict with their own ethics and their own morals."

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That would also describe the action figures he and Jason Statham play in "The Mechanic" -- that is, if the director, Simon West, had any ability to suggest character through action. (That's Foster, left, with Statham in a quiet millisecond of the movie.)

Statham is a super-sleek and "clean" assassin, dedicated to making murder look like death by natural causes. Foster plays the apprentice this hit man takes on -- mostly because he feels guilty for knocking off the boy-man's father. (The kid doesn't know he's the killer.) The Mechanic may be a lone wolf. But he operates under orders from the same organization that his own best friend -- the Foster character's dad -- helped build into a homicidal empire.

The film is supposed to be about how tricky it is when the smallest ounce of emotion enters a business that must be conducted without feeling. But it's mostly a dum-dum bullet of a movie -- make that dumb-dumb bullet. Everything broadens out on impact and goes splat, including the assassins' supposed ultra-professionalism, which is like "Existentialism for Idiots." (The plot pivots on a victim acting too cynical and resigned to prove his innocence to a trusted lieutenant.)

The ambushes and blowups are proficient, but rarely clever enough to be pleasurable. The hand-to-hand combat is often shot too close-in to be comprehensible. And it's staged as if on a butcher's block -- director Simon emphasizes the pounding and mortification of flesh rather than the blood-and-guts ballet of flying hands and feet.

It's up to Statham and Foster to fuel the melodrama by keeping us guessing exactly what feelings they harbor for each other (or anyone else) beneath their warrior fronts. I like them both, but Statham doesn't get a chance to show the acting chops he displayed in "The Bank Job." The movie is based on a sturdy old Charles Bronson vehicle. The remake retools the lead character into such a paragon of efficiency there's no room for Statham to express weariness or anxiety or melancholy the way Bronson could with every line of his face.

Bronson sauntered through a Playboy-mansion-style bachelor pad, puffing a Hef-like pipe and sporting a Hef-like red robe. In 1972, the Mechanic's deluxe, disciplined taste was seen as a seductive contrast to the chaos of the waning counterculture. Statham's digs are smart in a low-key masculine way (his most impressive gadgets are the components in his deluxe analog audio system). Though he ultimately rebels against the corporate order, he comes off as little more than a cog spinning out of his machine.

Compared to the original, the remake is like the new Audi TV commercial that says "goodbye to old luxury" and replaces it with a built-in GPS system. Foster, though, finds ways to strut his stuff. He makes his character unpredictable and volatile, yet also just quick and strong and gutsy enough to warrant his mentor's trust. Foster embraces his character's malevolent streak. As villain-loving actors go, he's the John Cassavetes of contemporary action exploitation.

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