Who needs Hollywood muscle? That's the question British film producers are asking as they prepare a spate of biggish-budget movies showcasing biggish-bicepped homegrown talent. They're banking on actors such as Jason Statham, Tom Hardy, Ray Winstone and Gerard Butler being able to lure audiences to British action films.
Some of the UK's most popular TV cop dramas of the Seventies and Eighties are being customised as potential vehicles for these stars. "What I want to do, which no one has really tried to do in the UK, is make a big Transporter/Taken-type action movie out of the UK," declares Lionsgate UK's Zygi Kamasa, one of the producers on a planned film version of the Seventies British crime series The Professionals. "This is potentially a $40m movie." A budget way beyond the usual couple of million spent on British independent movies.
Kamasa is working alongside the producers Callum McDougall (one of the executive producers on Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace) and Richard Whelan (whose credits include the new Marvel film Captain America: The First Avenger) on bringing The Professionals to the screen. The casting is yet to be announced. Statham, Hardy and Butler are all reportedly in the frame to play Bodie and Doyle, the hardbitten mercenary and square-jawed detective who work together for covert British security unit CI5 (Criminal Intelligence 5). Liam Neeson has been mentioned as one leading possibility to play their boss.
The original TV series, which aired on Saturday nights in the late 1970s, made Lewis Collins and Martin Shaw into household names in Britain and achieved cult status. However, the producers of The Professionals movie are promising a full-blown action drama on the scale of a James Bond film, not an exercise in kitsch nostalgia or an affectionate parody in the vein of the 2004 Starsky and Hutch movie reboot.
While The Professionals cranks into gear, Vertigo Films (the outfit behind Streetdance 3D) is preparing a film version of rival cop series The Sweeney, directed by Nick Love and starring Ray Winstone as Jack Regan and Ben Drew (aka British rap star Plan B) as his sidekick George Carter. This too promises to be on a far grander scale than the TV series that inspired it.
To those too young to remember the original Sweeney, or those who haven't been tempted to watch its endless daytime re-runs on obscure cable channels, this was British cop drama with a determinedly rough edge. Regan and Carter were uber-tough members of the Metropolitan Police's Flying Squad. Viewers more used to benign old PC George Dixon (Jack Warner) murmuring his trademark phrase "evening all" in the BBC's Dixon of Dock Green were startled by the self-consciously confrontational approach the series took. When Regan (played in saturnine and scowling fashion by John Thaw) spat out what became his motto – "You're nicked!" – the words themselves had a physical force. Regan and Carter (Dennis Waterman) were often far more menacing and intimidating than the criminals they tussled with. This was what the producers (Euston Films) used to call "kick, bollock and scramble" storytelling – that is to say, in-your-face drama with physicality and unrelenting tempo.
Alongside its film of The Sweeney, Vertigo is also preparing another action movie – a London-set remake of the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's harum-scarum thriller Pusher (1996) that will star Richard Coyle and Agyness Deyn. The film tells the story of a drug dealer whose life begins very rapidly to unravel when a deal falls apart.
We all know the woeful reputation of British gangster and action movies a decade ago, when every film-maker seemed to be trying to emulate the success of Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Posturing, testosterone-filled dramas about the murders of Essex drug dealers or London gangland feuds proved how hard it was to make a British Goodfellas. It was little surprise that these films floundered in the cinemas and were only really visible on DVD. They may have been loud and violent but they didn't have anything approaching the craftsmanship (or budgets) of the American dramas they based themselves on. Nor did they have the star power. For all their qualities, actors such as Craig Fairbrass and Danny Dyer weren't international names.
What has changed now is that the new wave of "kick, bollock and scramble" movies are being made on sizeable budgets, with decent production values and with British actors who possess genuine box-office appeal as well as fast-burgeoning Hollywood careers. They even have a chance of critical respectability. Against the odds, Statham, Hardy and Butler are beginning to wrestle their way into reviewers' affections.
The New York Times has written of "the ever-dependable Mr Statham and his gruff, buff stoicism". His characters never change. Whether he is a prison inmate driving souped-up vehicles in Death Race, a British everyman planning a robbery in The Bank Job or the ex-military man in The Transporter, his performances are near carbon copies of one another.
There is something very British (and sometimes quite absurd) about his lack of emotion. Early on in Death Race, his wife is murdered and he is framed for her killing. He may be grief-stricken, his life may have been torn apart, but that doesn't mean he is going to show it.
It's easy to sneer at Statham's films. However, as critics are increasingly acknowledging, he has traits that they can't overlook. He is likeable and down to earth. Unlike American action stars such as Steven Seagal, he has a human quality. He is not so muscled up that he seems more like a cyborg than a human being.
It was telling that when Ralph Fiennes made his recent screen version of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, he cast Gerard Butler as Coriolanus's nemesis Audifius, commander of the Volscian army, and played up the action movie credentials. Butler manages the Shakespearean blank verse competently enough while also managing to project the same machismo and intensity he brought to his role as Leonidas in Zack Snyder's 300.
Fellow British actor Tom Hardy won plaudits for his extraordinary performance as the notorious, ultra-violent criminal and body builder in long-term captivity in Bronson (2008), and is now playing the even more muscular Bane in Christopher Nolan's new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises.
One reason why the Brits have often struggled to create their own action stars is British cinema's long-standing hang-up about class. Before the Second World War, the most prominent movie actors tended to be politely spoken matinee-idol types such as Leslie Howard or Robert Donat. The 1940s and1950s were the era of the "chap" in Rank movies – pipe-smoking, tweed-jacketed, flannel trouser-wearing gents (John Gregson, Kenneth More, Dirk Bogarde) in well-mannered dramas, comedies and war films. John Mills would play plucky soldiers while James Mason was invariably cast as the bounder. There were some token action moves made along the way, among them Cy Endfield's Hell Drivers (1957), starring Stanley Baker and a youthful Sean Connery as reckless lorry drivers, and Val Guest's noirish, Manchester-set crime film Hell Is a City (1959), also starring Baker, but they were in short supply. In the 1960s came the British New Wave and a new generation of actors (Albert Finney, Michael Caine, Peter O'Toole, Richard Harris) who quickly managed to build themselves international careers.
Despite these actors' successes, what British cinema has never had is the equivalent of American cinema's action stars, be it of the muscular Schwarzenegger/Stallone variety or vengeful, gun-toting types in the Charles Bronson/Clint Eastwood mould. That's why the planned films of The Sweeney and The Professionals are intriguing test cases. If they turn out the way that their producers are promising, spawning sequels and franchises, it will prove that "kick, bollock and scramble" movies have a future after all... and that British actors such as Statham, Hardy and Butler don't have to cross the Atlantic to star in proper action films.