Is Jason Statham the last action star? -- The brawny, badass star of ''Crank,'' who does his own stunts, might just revive a dying breed

If you’re a fan of a certain kind of action movie, these are dark times. In 1987, for example, you could go to the multiplex and see Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, Sylvester Stallone in Over the Top, and Arnold Schwarzenegger flexing his Bavarian biceps in Predator and The Running Man. If your tastes ran a bit more down-market, you could also check out Charles Bronson — creaky, but still hell with a Beretta — in Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, or Patrick Swayze as the postapocalyptic Nomad in Steel Dawn. And if you had already worked your way through all of those, well, 1988’s Die Hard was just around the corner.

Two decades later, there’s Matt Damon as Jason Bourne and…who else exactly? Russell Crowe seems conflicted about being an action star — he’d just as soon play a mathematician or a yuppie examining his soul in a French vineyard as make another Gladiator. Keanu Reeves would apparently rather go off and make puppy-dog eyes at Sandra Bullock than help her stop another runaway bus. Colin Farrell seems to have dropped off the map altogether. Christian Bale and Heath Ledger are more interested in Gotham City than the real world. And yes, Daniel Craig managed to breathe new life into the Bond franchise, but those come around only every couple of years. In the meantime, action junkies have had to make do with comic-book superheroes who all seem to come with tortured, hand-wringing backstories. Compared with guys like Tango and Cash, they’re little more than boys in tights.

No one, it seems, is dying to be a red-meat action hero these days.

Well, almost no one.

If the name Jason Statham doesn’t ring any bells, then you’ve probably never seen Guy Ritchie’s first two movies, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. That, or you’re not one of the 15-year-old boys who’ve turned Statham’s Transporter movies into a $197 million worldwide franchise. To them, Statham is a throwback to the dangerous leading men that defined the ’80s golden age of tough talk and testosterone. To them, Statham is already a star.

If you take the time to sit down and watch a Jason Statham movie — any Jason Statham movie, really — you’ll see something beyond all of the car chases and knuckle-scraping brawls. You’ll see just how badly he wants to be a star. It’s right there in his eyes. If you look at a movie like Crank, a caffeinated thriller from last year, in which Statham plays a hitman who’s injected with a toxin that will kill him if he lets his heart rate dip below a hummingbird’s tempo, you’ll see the same hungry look that Stallone had in Rocky, or Schwarzenegger had in Pumping Iron.

But so far, Statham’s career in America has been a series of middling hits and false starts. Each movie looks like it might be the one to vault him to the action-movie A list, but then it doesn’t pan out. He’s close. Statham knows that. So he keeps plugging away, kicking ass after ass, hoping the next one will be the one that gets him to where he wants to be.

This time, that next movie is War, in which he stars as a brooding FBI agent obsessed with hunting an assassin, played by Jet Li. And regardless of whether it winds up being the movie that makes the 39-year-old actor a household name, he knows that sooner or later the time will come when his career will have to go in one of two directions: He’ll finally be anointed the next Bruce Willis…or fade away like the latest Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Like most movie stars, Statham seems smaller in person than he does on screen. Unlike most, however, he’s more handsome. Maybe that’s because in his films he’s usually taking a beating or covered in someone else’s blood after dishing one out. Like his idol, Bruce Willis, Statham wears his head shaved. It’s covered in stubble, as is the rest of his granite face. He has 7 percent body fat and, if it weren’t for the disarming smile, he’d give off the air of a British street tough who might smash your face into the curb just for kicks.

When he walks into the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills for lunch, the crowd of aging industry types swivel their heads toward him. Who is this guy? Then they swivel them back. He’s no one. ”F–in’ ‘ell, this place is as old Hollywood as it gets,” says Statham in his rough Cockney growl. Needless to say, these are not Statham’s people.

Statham, who’s never been married and splits his time between England and L.A., grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in South London, where his father worked as a salesman. Actually, salesman is too polite. Statham’s dad ran a mock auction, or ”ram shop.” ”They call ’em that because you’re ramming people with s– and you’re taking their money,” Statham says. His father would rent out an empty storefront and set up a lectern, where he’d stand with a gavel and auction off liquidated merchandise. Young Jason would lure folks into the auction by giving away free stereos. ”The stuff wasn’t hot, but you don’t know where it’s come from and why it’s so cheap. It may have fallen off the back of a lorry,” he jokes, uncorking a raspy ex-smoker’s laugh.

Statham learned the trade from his old man and eventually branched out on his own, working the streets outside of tourist traps like Harrods with a velvet-lined briefcase full of costume jewelry he’d buy for one pound and sell for 10. ”Occasionally, I would feel bad if it was an old lady,” he says. ”But anyone else, you’re an idiot.”

Around the same time, Statham began diving competitively. He eventually worked his way up to the British national team. At one point, he was ranked as high as 12th in the world. He also started training in martial arts and boxing. One day during diving practice, a modeling agent came to the pool, liked his look, and asked him to model in a print ad for French Connection jeans. ”It’s not like I was on the catwalk,” he says defensively. ”I’m too short and my f–ing nose is halfway across my face. All I had to do was sit in a deck chair.”

As luck would have it, French Connection turned out to be a financier of 1998’s Lock, Stock, which got Statham an audition with its director, Guy Ritchie. ”During the meeting, I started telling him what I used to do, working on the street, and that’s when he became interested.” Ritchie’s film is set in London’s East End, with its underbelly milieu of gangsters, gamblers, and grifters. Statham’s shady background was a perfect fit.

In the opening scene of the movie, Statham stands on a street corner, selling stolen jewelry, spouting come-ons in his thick Cockney accent: ”’Too late, too late,’ will be the cry when the man with the bargains has passed you by!” It’s one of those star-is-born moments, in part because Statham wasn’t acting at all. When the film wrapped, he sat around for 18 months, waiting for another offer. But aside from a week’s work on a cheapie starring rapper Ja Rule, he didn’t get one until Ritchie cast him in Snatch two years later.

A couple of thankless parts in forgettable films like John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars followed. And Statham’s next break came when Luc Besson (The Fifth Element), struck by the actor’s face and his physicality, wrote a movie for him to star in: The Transporter. In that 2002 film, Statham plays an ex-Special Forces officer in the south of France who takes no-questions-asked delivery assignments for drug dealers and Euro hoods. Made for just $15 million, the film made more than $25 million at the box office and another $44 million internationally. But it was on DVD that the movie exploded, pulling in an additional $60 million in the U.S. alone.

Which helps explain 2005’s Transporter 2, a kinder, gentler riff on the same fast-cars-and-fisticuffs story. The sequel made $128 million worldwide and also marked the first time Statham was paid a million dollars to be in a movie. ”That was like getting a bulletproof jacket,” he says of the film’s success. ”Each movie that does well, you get another bulletproof jacket. Without them, you get shot right in the heart and your career dies. I don’t think I’m quite bulletproof yet.” Statham even talks like an action movie.

Since the first Transporter, Statham has taken smaller roles in big films (2003’s The Italian Job) and bigger roles in small films (the drug-fueled drama London). But he’s the first to admit that not all of his movies (2002’s Mean Machine, 2005’s Chaos) have been top-notch. ”Sometimes on these movies we get by on the skin of our teeth,” he says. ”Average stunts, substandard sets, stuntmen that can’t react, but we get through.”

Still, if you look at the escalating box office returns of his films, it’s clear that there’s something about him that people are beginning to respond to. The actor believes part of the reason is his willingness to do his own stunts — which is also a gift when movies are made on the cheap. ”I want to do action movies where people in the audience are like ‘F–ing ‘ell, that’s him actually doing that s–!’ I’m not saying I’ve done every single stunt in every one of my movies, but all you have to do is get the pause button and see that it’s me jumping on a Jet Ski onto the back of that bus.”

War director Philip G. Atwell, for one, was both pleasantly surprised by and a bit nervous about Statham’s insistence on putting his life at risk. ”He did this jump from one roof to another. It was six or seven stories up and it was a good 10 feet between the two roofs. That may not sound like much, but trust me, when you’re that high up, it’s high! I don’t think Bruce Willis would do that.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise of Statham’s slow-burn ascent is just how eclectic his fan base has become. It’s not just teenage boys anymore. ”We’ve done a lot of research and test screenings on Jason’s movies,” says Tim Palen, co-president of film marketing for Lionsgate, the indie studio behind four of Statham’s films. ”He appeals equally strong to women. They swoon over him. It feels like yesterday’s brute is today’s leading man, with Daniel Craig and Clive Owen and now Jason.”

If War doesn’t turn out to be the movie that turns Statham into the Cockney Bruce Willis, he’ll have other chances, starting with the upcoming The Bank Job, a heist film with Saffron Burrows; and next fall’s Death Race, a $60 million reinterpretation of the 1975 postapocalyptic road-rage flick. ”The movie’s perfectly tailored to take him to the next level,” says Death Race director Paul W.S. Anderson. ”I wrote it for someone who was McQueen cool and Bronson hard — and that’s Jason.” After that, Statham may make a Transporter 3 or, possibly, a G.I. Joe movie with Mark Wahlberg.

If and when Statham’s crossover moment comes, he’ll be ready. ”The movies I’ve made so far are stepping stones. I think I’ve only done 50 percent of what I’m really capable of.”

So does that ever get frustrating, knowing he can do more? ”F–, yeah! It’s the most frustrating thing in the world! Because you know it’s just around the corner. But once you get around that corner, it’s around the next corner. I take a lot of meetings and get a lot of pats on the back. ‘You’re great! We really want to work with you!’ And that’s great, I’m sure they do. But you’re just waiting for one of them to bet on your horse.”

Statham lowers his voice. ”Look, I don’t want to sound like the guy who’s mad he’s not a movie star. I’m very f–ing grateful.”

He leans back and rubs his stubbled head.

”Have you ever seen Pumping Iron with Arnold Schwarzenegger? In that movie he says, ‘The wolf climbing the hill is always hungrier than the wolf at the top of the hill….”’

As he says this, a grin spreads across Statham’s face, with a meaning that couldn’t be clearer: It’s the grin of the hungriest wolf in town.