Once upon a time — the 1980s — you could walk into a movie theater any day of the year, plop down a few bucks, and watch one man kick another man's ass. Not every action flick was great, but most were good enough, the film equivalent of pizza. Back then, Jason Statham, the star of the new action drama Homefront — and another two dozen just like it — would have been a forgettable punching bag. Today he's an action lover's last hope, though we support his career with the same dutiful gusto as Tea Partiers voting for Romney.
What's gone wrong in the past thirty years? It's not just that action-movie scripts are dramatically worse (though they're doubly serious and half as funny). It's that today's stunt heroes don't have Arnold Schwarzenegger's swagger, Jean-Claude van Damme's splits, Steven Seagal's ponytail, or Sylvester Stallone's operatic flop sweat. Statham has no hook, not even a memorable mustache. Instead, he seems glumly determined to convince us he can act, when he really needs to make us applaud.
Compared to those '80s kings' larger-than-life screen presences, a Statham three decades ago would have been lucky to get cast as Stallone's best friend who dies in the second act. Today, Stallone himself is mentoring Statham's career, anointing the former Olympic diver and underwear model as his best friend in the Expendables franchise and now writing him this script.
Statham plays ex-DEA agent Phil Broker, whom we first see setting up a sting on a gang of meth-dealing bikers. To go undercover, the bald actor sports a mop of Glenn Danzig hair. It's the most miserable-looking wig since John Travolta's three-foot dreadlocks in Battlefield Earth — so it's a blessing when, after five minutes of bloody chaos, Homefront fast-forwards two years to when Broker's retired and shorn and hiding from his ex-gang in a small Louisiana town.
We're surprised to learn that Broker has a nine-year-old daughter, Kit (Izabela Vidovic). How was he getting her to school when he was on the road racking up indictments? Conveniently, he had a wife who's now dead, in the grand tradition of women who best serve a script by disappearing.
In the love-interest role is a foxy school psychologist (Rachelle Lefevre) who warns this dad and daughter that their new home is "a bit like Appalachia — feuds still exist." When Kit punches the school bully in the nose, she precipitates a chain of clan violence, angering the boy's redneck mom (Kate Bosworth, improbably), her drug-dealing brother (James Franco, ironically), his biker girlfriend (Winona Ryder, unabashedly) and her outlaw acquaintances, who are just thrilled that the fed who set up their friends has resurfaced.
Director Gary Fleder seems to sometimes suspect Homefront could pass as comedy. He lets a local handyman (Omar Benson Miller) shrug off Franco's character: "They call him Gator for some dumb-ass reason." But though Franco's casting feels like a joke, the actor plays this straight, as though being an average villain in an ordinary thriller shows range. He makes boning Ryder on a Mustang seem mundane, when that was the No. 1 fantasy of every straight teenage boy in 1996.
Of course, all this builds to a deadly climax designed to vindicate stand-your-ground laws. Snooze. What's interesting is that Homefront's screenwriter, Stallone, a meathead Ph.D., knows that audiences are starving for over-the-top '80s action. Statham can deliver the hits — there's a scene here in which he literally fights two men with his hands tied behind his back — and he once showed promise of a personality in the wicked mayhem of Crank and the immortal Crank 2: High Voltage. But Stallone plopping him in this bore feels like an alpha setting up his successor to fail, like Zeus swallowing up his younger, handsomer challengers before they force him into retirement.