A Very Dumb Action Movie Proved Jason Statham is Hollywood’s Funniest Action Hero
Only one man could be just the right amount of ridiculous.
It takes special comic timing to deliver zingers like “Chew on this, you ugly bastard” with just the right amount of knowing ridiculousness. Arnie could do it. So could Bruce Willis. But over the past 25 years, everyone’s favorite scowling, shaven-headed Brit, Jason Statham, has asserted himself as the new king of the action hero one-liner. And The Meg, the first time his archnemesis happened to be a bloodthirsty 75-foot shark from an unexplored world beneath the Mariana Trench, gave him plenty of opportunity to flex both his comedic and real muscles.
Statham had first shown off the latter as a professional diver competing in the 1990 Commonwealth Games, and as an oiled-up, leopard print-trunked dancer in the video for rave outfit The Shamen’s “Comin’ On.” His first intentionally amusing performance, though, came in his big-screen debut. In Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ opening scene, Statham’s Cockney wheeler-dealer Bacon instantly commands attention with his fast-paced, if politically incorrect, market stall patter (“I took a bag home last night and she cost a lot more than ten pounds I can tell ya”).
The further Statham ventured into Tinseltown, the more he became renowned for punching his foes into next week. However, villainous turns in the likes of Cellular and Turn It Up aside, he always imbued his killing machines with a cheeky glint. The Transporter and Crank franchises were particularly successful in channeling Statham’s playfulness, the former with various wisecracking death blows (“Have a good life… What’s left of it”) and the latter with “What did I just watch?” acts of gonzo physical humor.
It wasn’t until 2015’s hugely underrated Spy, however, that Statham appeared in a pure comedy. And he stole the show from Melissa McCarthy as special agent Rick Ford, an inspired send-up of his super-macho screen persona with a specialty in hilariously far-fetched backstories (“I watched the woman I love get tossed from a plane and hit by another plane mid-air. I drove a car off a freeway on top of a train while on fire. Not the car; I was on fire”).
Statham has since shown off his funny bone in Fast and Furious spin-off Hobbs and Shaw alongside another quip-ready lunkhead, Dwayne Johnson, and in his latest Guy Ritchie caper, Operation Fortune. Yet it’s The Meg, celebrating its fifth anniversary in the same month its much-derided sequel hit cinemas, that best used his ability to sell big, dumb fun.
Loosely based on Steve Alten’s 1997 novel Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror, the box office hit stars Statham as Jonas Taylor, a rescue diver haunted by a nuclear submarine disaster in which he failed to get two crewmen out alive. This wasn’t just any old nuclear submarine disaster, though. It was caused by an unidentified sea creature with teeth the size of human hands and a bite more powerful than three Tyrannosaurus rexes combined. Unfortunately, with Taylor as the only witness, this version of events is dismissed by medics as a form of psychosis induced by the pressure of the deep blue sea.
Skip forward five years and Taylor literally gets to say “I told you so” when an exploration of the Mariana Trench co-piloted by ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee) is rudely interrupted by the same megalodon. He now has just 18 hours to save her life and prove his sanity. It’s a set-up that screams Sharknado schlockfest that breaks the golden rule of so-bad-they’re-good movies: don’t deliberately aim for bad.
Yet director Jon Turteltaub, best-known for ’90s Blockbuster staples Cool Runnings and While You Were Sleeping, wisely avoids leaning too heavily into self-awareness. The Meg doesn’t take itself too seriously; this is a film in which a douchey Elon Musk-esque billionaire (Rainn Wilson) confidently declares, “I am not getting eaten by a goddamn prehistoric fish” seconds before getting eaten by a goddamn prehistoric fish. But it also has one fin in the semi-serious disaster thrillers of the 1970s.
Statham is pivotal to this tricky balancing act. While the surrounding cardboard cutout characters — Li Bingbing’s unconvincing love interest Suyin, Ruby Rose’s bland tech whiz Jaxx, Winston Chao’s po-faced oceanographer — barely share a personality trait between them, Taylor is a (relatively) multifaceted knight in shining wetsuit.
He’s a high-functioning drunk who, as shown in the token gratuitous shirtless scene, somehow still has washboard abs. He’s rough, but has a heart of gold: witness how great he is with Suyin’s precocious eight-year-old daughter. And he has the uncanny ability to deliver a snappy quote, whether he’s being dragged along the Pacific Ocean’s surface by a motorboat or fatally piercing a once-extinct mackerel shark in the eye.
Written by Dean Georgaris and brothers Jon and Erich Hoeber, The Meg’s dialogue isn’t exactly razor-sharp. There’s nothing remotely in the same league as an “I’ll be back” or “Yippie-ki-yay.” Nevertheless, Statham’s gruff-voiced, pitch-perfect delivery still makes corny lines like “Meg versus man isn’t a fight... it’s a slaughter” pop. Likewise, his response to how he’s going to kill his prehistoric adversary: “Evolution. I’m going to make this thing bleed.”
As always, Statham knows exactly what kind of movie he’s starring in, and without his mix of commitment and cornball, The Meg would sink faster than a chomped body part. Everything but its leading man and leading fish are surplus, something The Meg 2 only seems to realize halfway through. You can always look past the plot holes, wafer-thin characterization, and toothless action when you’ve got Hollywood’s most droll tough guy throwing barbs at the ocean’s answer to King Kong.