Jason Statham's acting career began on the sidewalks of Argyle Street in London. Sitting on a milk crate with a suitcase of bogus jewelry, the young street hustler said whatever it took to persuade tourists to buy gold chains that would turn green by the time they flew home.
"That was street theater. It was called fly pitching. You work with a team - some people in the crowd, some guys who stand lookout for the police. Those were the most lucrative days of my youth," Statham says.
Later, Statham would be introduced to a young filmmaker named Guy Ritchie who was looking to pepper the cast of his new crime film with nonactors whose faces evoked London's seedier pubs. Statham laughed at the memory. "There were two reasons: He wanted to save money, and he wanted street credibility. Guy shoveled me up off the street. Without him, there wouldn't be all this."
"All this" is Statham's career as a Hollywood action hero, which is ramping up like one of the turbo-charged cars he usually wrecks in his films.
Statham stars opposite Jet Li in War, a bloody tale of Asian organized crime that opens tomorrow, and soon leaves for Canada to begin filming Death Race, the Universal Pictures remake of the nihilistic 1975 sci-fi film Death Race 2000.
The rugged Statham has been in 19 movies since 2000 and won the affection of discerning action fans with the deliriously dangerous stunts he did as the title character in The Transporter in 2002 and its sequel in 2005. But Death Race marks the first time that the 34-year-old will have a major studio and a blockbuster budget at his back when he jumps off a building.
"This is the big leap," Statham said. "This is my first step into the big world of fully equipped action movies, if you will. I'm very, very excited. And the movie: The script is great. They got missiles, anti-aircraft guns, napalm, oil slicks - it's serious stuff. Oh, yes. It's right up my street."
In conversation, Statham is like a one-man pub crowd on fight night - lots of volume, some cheering here and there, plenty of jabs at the air and a dazzling array of casual obscenities.
His defining early appearances on screen were in Ritchie's breakthrough films: the fascinating, funny and lurid Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in 1998 and its companion piece, Snatch, in 2000. With his short hair, bullet-shaped head, athletic build and intense scowl, Statham quickly became typecast as the British hardman, to borrow the soccer term for enforcers who prowl the pitch.
The accent and the stoic tough-guy aura may be why Statham is more popular with female audiences than many of his hard-knock peerage; he also had a brief career as a fashion model, but even then his poses had an air of menace. He chuckled at that notion: "I've just got a really bad smile. I go for the scowl instead."
The approach has worked well: There is a third film in the Transporter franchise in discussion, and once again Luc Besson will co-write. (It is not clear, though, if Louis Leterrier will direct.) Even Statham knows, though, that if he wants a long-term career, he can't keep making movies where he comes off as some sort of ninja version of Buster Keaton in sleek European suits.
"Ideally, I'd want to do something that's a bit more of an adult movie in tone, like the Bourne movies," Statham said. "But maybe that's not what the people want to see. I dunno. It's hard. You always want to do what you haven't done."
The squints, scowls and deadpan expressions have made him sort of a latter-day Clint Eastwood, some say, but they could also make him just a cooler British version of Steven Seagal.
To Steve Chasman, a producer of War and both Transporter films, the Eastwood analogy works, even from a career standpoint. He said Statham captured the attention and imagination of fans first, and now major studio executives are catching on.
"It's like when Clint came up through television and then went off to do the Sergio Leone movies in Europe, and he came back to Hollywood really an outsider, and he wasn't lifted up - he had to prove himself. I think Jason has that same type of career ahead of him."
Eastwood eventually became not only a director, but an action hero who could put down his gun and stride through dramas and even cross the Bridges of Madison County into romances.
Does Statham have the ability to be in a movie where he doesn't get his face punched?
"Absolutely," Chasman said. "But right now, you have to keep the audience happy, too, and give people what they want. We can't forget we are making movies for people, not just for ourselves. ... Is he going to go off and do Shakespeare? I don't think so, at least not right now."
Geoff Boucher writes for the Los Angeles Times.