Jason Statham was born on July 26 1967, but it was another 40 years and 13 days before anyone called him "The Stath". The nickname's origin was innocuous enough: it was a jokey aside in a 2007 Empire magazine article about the forthcoming, Statham-starring remake of Death Race 2000. But within 18 months, "The Stath" was being regularly deployed by fans and journalists alike, and sounded a little less ironic every time.
Like an English version of his precursors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, with whom he was about to appear in the greased-up macho throwback The Expendables, The Stath had gone from B-movie bruiser to action-star brand.
That name caught on because it described something for which we didn't have another word: the type of blunt-force, low-consequence heroism in which Hollywood had shown almost no interest for almost 20 years. In the 2000s, blockbuster heroes looked like Frodo Baggins and Captain Jack Sparrow. Keanu Reeves in The Matrix was about as buff as they got, and his athletic prowess was downloaded.
But these days, Stath brand values are riding high. Take the $5 billion-grossing Fast & Furious franchise, which ushered Statham into its repertory troupe in 2013, and has pumped up his part with each instalment. The latest episode, Hobbs & Shaw, has just arrived in cinemas, and centres on Statham and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson – cinema's two great postmodern meatheads.
Like The Stath, The Rock had exactly the right skills and charisma to thrive in the new age of flippant action stardom. But he also had a head start. In 2010, when Johnson's Hollywood career took off in earnest, he'd already proven himself as a WWE wrestler, honing his image on the wild arena crowds. The difference with Statham – indeed, the very essence of The Stath itself – lies in the way in which he clawed himself up.
Two key stories are told about Statham's pre-fame life. In one, he's a competitive diver: the working-class athlete who competed with the British national diving team at the 1990 Commonwealth Games before moving into film via modelling, and who in 1992 was ranked 12th best diver in the world. In the other story, he's a ducker and a diver: the likeable rogue who as a kid helped his father, Barry, hawk knock-off designer jewellery on the streets of Great Yarmouth, and inherited the gift of the gab.
It was the first of these personas that pulled him into the orbit of Guy Ritchie, who was casting Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) while Statham was modelling for French Connection, and wanted an unknown for the role of Bacon, one of the film's core quartet of small-time crooks. But it was the second that won him the role. Ritchie auditioned Statham by asking him to run through his market-stall patter, and apparently left the meeting with both a new star and a phoney Rolex.
Statham's early roles saw him switch between these two sides – the severe, strapping diver in violent fodder such as Ghosts of Mars and The One, and the lovable ducker/diver in his work with Ritchie. (The latter was also neatly epitomised by a Kit Kat advert from 2003, in which he held forth about the life cycle of a salmon over a greasy-spoon cuppa.) The two personas finally converged in the original Transporter trilogy (2002-08), in which Statham played a sharply dressed black-market courier, Frank Martin, who is chased around Europe by various undesirables.
The Transporter films were produced by Luc Besson's EuropaCorp, which would later be responsible for the Charles Bronson-ification of Liam Neeson in Taken – and it was hard to know how seriously to take them, since they largely consisted of action clichés from Eighties Hollywood and Hong Kong restaged on a modern European backdrop. But by moving in on that long-forsaken territory, the films found an itch the industry had forgotten how to scratch.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, a video-game company called Rockstar was engaged in a similar project. Its Grand Theft Auto franchise was allowing players to act out scenarios inspired by classic action and gangster films, but with a trollish irreverence that made obscene amounts of collateral damage part of the joke. The avatar in GTA IV (2008) was apparently modelled on the Russian actor Vladimir Mashkov – but fans could be forgiven for seeing Statham in his stubbled jaw, receding hairline masked by a buzz-cut, prowling swagger and gym-hardened physique.
Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio on working together: 'It was pretty automatic'
Even now, Rutger Hauer's performance in Blade Runner is a marvel
Even in person, there was something of the video-game avatar about Statham: silver-tongued and strapping as he was, men could mentally slip themselves into his shoes without too much daydreaming required. ("Not too male-modelly" was how French Connection described his look, and they meant it as a compliment.) He may not have had George Clooney's suavity or Brad Pitt's twinkle, but he could follow a mean punch with a sharp quip. In other words, he was threatening in the ways men are comfortable with, and only those ways. Off-screen, his love life was and remains a teenage boy's dream. There was a six-year relationship with Kelly Brook in the Lock, Stock… era. Now he's engaged to model and sometime actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, with whom he has a two-year-old son, Jack.
It's no coincidence that the definitive Statham role – and the one that immediately predated his rebrand as The Stath – was the first to fully embrace those avatar-like qualities. The 2006 action comedy Crank starred Statham as the Los Angeles-based British hitman Chev Chelios – who, in order to keep his heart pumping after being poisoned in his sleep, has to maintain nerve-frazzling levels of adrenalin. He drives through shopping centres, shoots up a hospital, starts a fight in a biker club, and so on: plot as free-form as a Grand Theft Auto rampage. The relative levels of the various drugs in Chev's system are tracked by pop-up bars and gauges. "This is horrific," the film seems to say. "Bet you wish you could do it."
It seems incredible now that Statham was only the third-choice lead for directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, after approaches were made to the Jackass star Johnny Knoxville and the comedian Chris Rock. The role flawlessly melds both sides of Statham – the diver and the ducker/diver – while wallowing in that EuropaCorp-honed ambiguity over just how much of it we're supposed to laugh off.
In an interview last year, Bridesmaids director Paul Feig told me he'd "fallen in love" with Statham while watching Crank, so wrote him into his 2015 comedy Spy as a preposterously hard-as-nails British secret agent. "I was like, 'He has to know this is nuts,'" Feig recalled. "But the genius of it is that he could credibly be taking it seriously."
Perhaps most extraordinarily of all, Crank features a scene in which Statham's character is beset by erectile dysfunction. Chev is trying to make love to his girlfriend in the centre of Chinatown – for the adrenalin rush, you understand – but the gathering onlookers bring on a psychosomatic loss of nerve. It proves but a temporary setback: soon enough he recentres himself and is off with a cheer from the crowd. It's a comic skit I doubt any other male action star working today would have gone through with. When it comes to playing impotence with a genial such-is-life shrug, only The Stath is man enough.
Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw is out now