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Image: Jason Statham in "Killer Elite"
Open Road Films
Can 'Killer Elite' star Jason Statham compete with stars like Stallone, Schwarzenegger? He's off to a good start, but really needs a signature role.
TODAY contributor
updated 9/19/2011 4:58:31 PM ET 2011-09-19T20:58:31

Every year, movie producers keep trying to force a successor to the 1980’s action Holy Trinity of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis.

The Rock is trying, but it will take more than “Fast Five” to make us forget about his starring role in “The Tooth Fairy.” Last year, Sam Worthington and Jake Gyllenhaal didn't quite make the cut. This year, “Twilighter” Taylor Lautner gives it a go with “Abduction.”

Memo to Hollywood: Stop. Just stop. Your next big action star may already be here.

Jason Statham has been kicking butt and taking names for years. From “Crank” to “Death Race” to “The Transporter” franchise and “The Expendables,” the bald Brit has established himself as a go-to action man. He can take down guys with his hands, feet, even his Italian sweater.

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His latest effort, “Killer Elite,” opens Sept. 23. He plays an assassin forced out of retirement to save his friend (played by Robert De Niro). Even at its most ridiculous — at one point, he tumbles out a window, tied to a chair, onto a truck! — Statham is all business.

Video: Watch the 'Killer Elite' trailer (on this page)

But when you compare star power, he's closer in stature to Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme than he is to Schwarzenegger, Stallone or Willis.

Anyone who has seen “The Bank Job” or “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” knows Statham has acting chops.

So why isn’t he a bigger star?

“By this point in their respective careers, Stallone had tried serious drama (“F.I.S.T.”) and Schwarzenegger had already moved to comedy (“Twins”),” notes IFC film critic Matt Singer. “Statham has made some small moves outside the action genre — he made “London” and “Revolver” with Guy Ritchie — but he seems hesitant to move out of his comfort zone.”

Ed Douglas, editor for the website Coming Soon, agrees that Statham needs to expand his horizons. “Maybe Statham needs to do other things than action movies,” Douglas said.

Slideshow: September movies (on this page)

How does Statham measure up to Bruce, Sly and Arnold? Let’s see:

Tough guy factor
Skinny dudes like Robert Downey Jr. and Tobey Maguire may work in superhero movies, but to be an action star, you have to look the part. Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s muscle-bound physiques oozed attitude. So does Statham. He looks like the kind of guy who can walk into a bar and get someone to give up his seat just by giving him the stare down.

“He's a good action star because he feels authentic,” said Singer, pointing out that “Statham's refusal to hide his baldness speaks to his appeal. This guy is not a pretty boy.”

“Statham works as an action star because you truly believe he's as tough as his characters,” added Douglas.

The over-the-top '80s were carried on the broad shoulders of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, Statham is more a reflection of the current times: Leaner, meaner and faster. The guy’s a natural athlete and does most of his own stunts, which only adds to his "tough guy" aura.

Measures Up: Absolutely.

Story: 'Killer Elite' delivers the action-movie goods

Romantic life
Willis had Bonnie Bedelia in the “Die Hard” movies, Arnold had Jamie Lee Curtis in “True Lies” and in the “Rambo” movies, Stallone had ... err, Richard Crenna?

OK, so it’s not mandatory that an action hero save a damsel in distress, but it certainly helps. In Seagal’s best films, “Under Siege” and “Hard to Kill,” he had Erika Eleniak and Kelly LeBrock by his side.

Up to now, Statham’s best opposite-sex partner has been Amy Smart in “Crank.” And If you’ve seen that movie, you know it doesn’t exactly scream classic screen romance (if you’re thinking of Googling, it’s definitely NSFW).

For the guy who played "Handsome Rob" in “The Italian Job” and who in real life dates “Transformers 3” babe Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, that has to be a letdown.

Measures Up: Not so much

Slideshow: Action movies aren't just for the men

Playing the underdog
It’s no fun cheering for a hero who can’t be beat.

Arnold was the exception to the rule, but most action stars need to take their lumps. As Det. John McClane, Bruce Willis was a bloodied mess in every single “Die Hard,” and we loved him for it. Even a one-man army like Rambo was beaten and tortured in all four films, making his big comeback that much more enjoyable.

It’s why Seagal movies quickly grew stale. The guy barely ever took a punch.

Statham isn’t quite as bad, but he may be too tough for his own good. Scenes like the one in “The Transporter,” where he shellacks a bus full of bad guys and barely breaks a sweat, are cool. But once we know the hero has no chance of losing, we lose interest.

Time to take a few more punches, Jason.

Measures Up: Not quite

Team player
The one guy against the world shtick isn’t as appealing as it used to be.

Even Rambo, Indiana Jones and McClane picked up sidekicks in their last adventures. We love our hero team-ups. We want “Tango & Cash,” “The A-Team,” “The Dirty Dozen.”

“Predator,” pretty much the manliest movie of all time, works because Arnold and Carl Weathers try to out-leader each other, and because Jesse Ventura “ain’t got time to bleed.”

Statham gets it, which is why he’s always mixed group outings in with his solo adventures: “The Italian Job,” the action hero buffet that was “The Expendables,” and even “Killer Elite” shows him working with a crew.

He knows how to play well with others.

Measures Up: Absolutely

Signature role
To earn your membership card in the Action Superstar Union, actors need that one defining role. The one that becomes a part of every lazily written entertainment news story, i.e. ‘Arnold to Hollywood: I’ll be back!’

Schwarzenegger remains the Terminator; Stallone has Rambo; Willis will always be John McClane.

Statham is ... Frank Martin? Lee Christmas? Chev Chelios?? How many of you can match up those names with a Statham movie, without going to IMDB?

That's the answer to the question asked earlier: “Why isn’t Jason Statham a bigger star?”  Statham needs that once-in-a-career part that will resonate with audiences and forever be linked with his name. Until he finds that role — and he may never find it — he won't join the ranks of Sly, Arnold and the rest.

Measures Up: Not even close

Michael Avila is a writer in New York; follow his random pop culture musings on Twitter.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: September movies

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  1. 'Apollo 18'

    Stars: Lloyd Owen, Warren Christie

    Director: Gonzalo López-Gallego

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 2

    Think there wasn't an "Apollo 18" lunar mission? Think again. Decades-old found footage from the supposed secret expedition reveals the reason the U.S. has never returned to the moon. Hint: Didja see "Alien"? (The Weinstein Company) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 'The Debt'

    Stars: Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington and Tom Wilkinson

    Director: John Madden

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 2

    "The Debt" begins in 1997, as shocking news reaches retired Mossad secret agents Rachel (Mirren) and Stefan (Wilkinson) about their former colleague David. The group supposedly tracked down a Nazi war criminal in 1966 -- or did they? (Miramax Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 'Shark Night 3D'

    Stars: Sara Paxton, Dustin Milligan and Alyssa Diaz

    Director: David R. Ellis

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 2

    The title, "Sharl Night 3D," says it all. But sharks in a freshwater lake? Hollywood will do anything to get the blood, bikinis and severed limbs flying in 3-D. (Relativity Media) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 'A Good Old Fashioned Orgy'

    Stars: Jason Sudeikis, Leslie Bibb and Tyler Labine

    Directors: Alex Gregory, Peter Huyck

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 2

    In "A Good Old Fashioned Orgy," Jason Sudeikis and pals have partied for years at his dad's beach house. But when dad (Don Johnson) announces he's selling the place, his son decides it's time for the ultimate party. (Samuel Goldwyn Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. 'Contagion'

    Stars: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Jude Law

    Director: Steven Soderbergh

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 9

    Have your face masks ready -- you'll want one after seeing "Contagion." The action thriller follows people trying to survive a lethal virus. Big stars abound, and it sure looks like from promos that things don't go well for Gwyneth Paltrow. (Warner Bros) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 'Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star'

    Stars: Nick Swardson, Don Johnson and Christina Ricci

    Director: Tom Brady

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 9

    "Bucky Larson" is a kid from the Midwest who moves out to Hollywood in order to follow in his parents footsteps -- which for him, means becoming a porn star. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. 'Warrior'

    Stars: Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte and Joel Edgerton

    Director: Gavin O'Connor

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 9

    In "Warrior," two estranged brothers face the fight of a lifetime. Nick Nolte plays their alcoholic dad, who trains one to eventually land in the ring against the other in a mixed martial-arts tournament. (Chuck Zlotnick) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 'Straw Dogs'

    Stars: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth and Alexander Skarsgard

    Director: Rod Lurie

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 16

    "Straw Dogs" is a remake of the 1971 Dustin Hoffman thriller, infamous for its controversial rape scene. L.A. screenwriter David Sumner relocates with his wife to her hometown in the deep South. There, while tensions build between them, a brewing conflict with locals becomes a threat to them both. (Screen Gems) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 'I Don't Know How She Does It'

    Stars: Sarah Jessica Parker, Pierce Brosnan and Kelsey Grammer

    Director: Douglas McGrath

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 16

    "I Don't Know How She Does It" is a comedy centered on the life of Kate Reddy (Parker), a finance executive who is the breadwinner for her husband and two kids. Based on the best-selling novel. (The Weinstein Company) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 'Drive'

    Stars: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan and Bryan Cranston

    Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 16

    In "Drive," Gosling plays a Hollywood stunt performer who moonlights as a wheelman. After a heist goes wrong, he discovers that a contract has been put on his life. (Richard Foreman Jr Smpsp / FilmDistrict) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. 'Moneyball'

    Stars: Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright and Jonah Hill

    Director: Bennett Miller

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 23

    Brad Pitt stars as Oakland A's manager Billy Beane in "Moneyball," based on Michael Lewis' book. The focus is on Beane's attempt to create a competitive team despite Oakland's unfavorable financial situation. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. 'Abduction'

    Stars: Taylor Lautner, Lily Collins and Alfred Molina

    Director: John Singleton

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 23

    In "Abduction," Taylor Lautner plays a young man who sets out to uncover the truth about his life after finding his baby photo on a missing persons website. (Lionsgate) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. 'Dolphin Tale'

    Stars: Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr.

    Director: Charles Martin Smith

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 23

    IThe 3-D film "Dolphin Tale" is is inspired by the true story of a bottlenose dolphin named Winter who lost her tail in a crab trap. Her human friends work frantically to create a prosthetic so she can still swim. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. 'Dream House'

    Stars: Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and Naomi Watts

    Director: Jim Sheridan

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 30

    The beautiful home in "Dream House" is more of a nightmare. Soon after moving in, a family learns that a mother and her children were brutally murdered there. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. '50/50'

    Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick

    Director: Jonathan Levine

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 30

    "50/50" is a comedic account of a 27-year-old man's cancer diagnosis, and his subsequent struggle to beat the disease. (Summit Entertainment) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. 'Killer Elite'

    Stars: Jason Statham, Clive Owen and Robert De Niro

    Director: Gary McKendry

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 30

    Action film "Killer Elite" focuses on a retired member of Britain's Elite Special Air Service (Jason Statham) who is forced into action when his mentor (Robert De Niro) is taken hostage. His mission: kill three assassins dispatched by their cunning leader (Clive Owen). (Open Road Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. 'What's Your Number?'

    Stars: Anna Faris, Chris Pratt and Chris Evans

    Director: Mark Mylod

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 30

    "What's Your Number?" refers to the number of men a woman has slept with. Anna Faris plays Ally, a woman whose number is 20, as she looks back at those men wondering if any of them are her true love. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Watch the 'Killer Elite' trailer

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