Rewind to 1998. You're in a cinema watching Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and you have to predict which member of the cast will go on to become a star. Will it be Jason Flemyng, the LAMDA graduate with a string of film and television credits? Nick Moran, the young actor who first hit the big screen alongside Roger Daltrey and Chesney Hawkes in Buddy's Song? Or Vinnie Jones, the hardman of soccer crossing over into movies for the first time?could easily emerge as Britain's biggest Hollywood star.
It's a safe bet that you probably wouldn't have picked Jason Statham, a former market stallholder with no previous acting experience. He played a market trader in the film -- he's the guy on the street corner in the opening scene, shouting, "'Too late, too late,' will be the cry when the man with the bargains has passed you by!" -- so it wasn't that much of a stretch. Indeed, he only landed the part after he was talent-spotted at a boxing club by one of the film's backers.
Fast-forward ten years and Statham is easily the most successful of the film's alumni -- a list that includes director Guy Ritchie. Not every film he has done in the intervening period has struck gold, but he has enough hits under his belt to rank among Britain's top box office draws. The Transporter (2002), for instance, a small-budget French film written by Luc Besson, did so well on DVD that it spawned a sequel. Together, the two Transporter films have clocked up $197 million worldwide. Then there's Crank (2006), a tough little action movie that is due to be followed up by Crank 2 next year, not to mention a roster of films in the pipeline, including The Bank Job (2008), Death Race (2008) and The Brazilian Job (2009). From a purely commercial point of view, Statham is a bigger star -- a much bigger star -- than Jude Law, Daniel Day Lewis, Ray Winstone or any of the other British actors thought to have "conquered" Hollywood.
Of course, Statham is unlikely to win any awards. He's an action star, which ranks just above "porn star" in the respectability stakes. He tends to do a lot of running and jumping in his films -- often carrying a gun -- and on the rare occasions when he says something it is usually along the lines of, "You've got exactly three seconds to tell me where the bomb is." Yet he has a feral intensity -- an adrenalin-fuelled aggression -- that makes him stand out. The trend in Hollywood these days is to cast girlie men in action roles -- actors like Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jake Gyllenhaal -- and compared to them Jason Statham is like a throwback to the Jurassic era. In the words of Paul W. S. Anderson, who directs him in Death Race, he's "McQueen cool and Bronson hard".
Perhaps his greatest asset is that he's capable of appealing to both sexes. Most of the big action stars of the 80s -- Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Seagal -- were popular with men, but left women cold. (In the words of Clive James, Schwarzenegger looked like "a condom stuffed with walnuts".) Not so in the case of Statham.
"We've done a lot of research and test screenings on Jason's movies," says Tim Palen, the co-president of film marketing for Lionsgate, the studio responsible for four of Statham's films. "He appeals equally strong to women. They swoon over him."
Jason Statham may never appear on Inside the Actors Studio to talk about the clarity of his instrument, but in the next couple of years he could easily emerge as Britain's biggest Hollywood star.