British director Guy Ritchie frequently attributes the success of his unorthodox crime films -- 1998's Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, 2000's Snatch -- to the fact that his offbeat miscreants are more than believable, they are real. Preferring to cast for authenticity rather than resumé, Ritchie handpicks many of his actors from the true-life cult figures and rascals of London's underbelly. Actor Jason Statham is among the best of them.
A one-time Olympic diver, fashion model, and black-market salesman, Statham came to acting by way of commercials and "street theater" -- a euphemism for hustling tourists on London's Oxford Street. Raised in Syndenham, London, he was the second son of a lounge singer and a dressmaker turned dancer. Although Statham had the familial background to go immediately into entertainment, he excelled first on the high dive. He was a member of the 1988 British Olympic Team in Seoul, Korea, and remained on the National Diving Squad for ten years. In the late '90s, a talent agent specializing in athletes landed Statham a gig in an ad campaign for the European clothing retailer French Connection. This led to an appearance in a Levi's Jeans commercial and a fledgling modeling career. Meanwhile, Statham had also earned local fame as a street corner con man, selling stolen jewelry and counterfeit perfume out of a briefcase. Thus, when French Connection's owner became one of the biggest investors in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, he naturally introduced the diver/model/hustler to knave-hunting Ritchie.
Intrigued by Statham's past and impressed by his modeling work, Ritchie invited him to audition for a part in the film. The director challenged Statham to impersonate an illegal street vendor and convince him to purchase a piece of imitation gold jewelry. Statham was evidently so persuasive that Ritchie bought four sets. When the director attempted to return his worthless acquisition -- pretending that the gold had turned to stainless steel -- Statham was so graciously inflexible that Ritchie hired him.
This unorthodox audition resulted in Statham's big screen debut as Bacon, one of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels' four primary characters engaged in a risky get-rich-quick scheme to repay a massive gambling debt. Bacon supplies a streetwise discipline and restraint that the other characters lack and a sense of humility crucial to Ritchie's film. In the director's follow-up crime comedy, Snatch, Ritchie rehired Statham to play Turkish, a smalltime hood vainly trying to break into the world of underground boxing. As this amateur but respectable hoodlum, Statham is attractive, urbane, immaculate, and smart enough to be bewildered by even his own laughable criminal ineptitude. The role began as a small supporting part in Snatch's star-filled ensemble cast but expanded throughout shooting. By the time of the film's theatrical release, Statham received top billing as its narrator and chief anti-hero.
The Guy Ritchie oeuvre that supplied his breakthrough performances is not Statham's only acting arena. In 2000, he made his American film debut as a British drug dealer in Robert Adetuyi's Turn It Up starring Pras Michel. By 2001, he had finished shooting John Carpenter's sci-fi thriller Ghosts of Mars and joined Delroy Lindo in the cast of the Jet Li vehicle The One. A chance to reteam with former Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrel co-star Vinnie Jones proved too fun an opportunity to resist, and Stratham would round out a particularly busy 2001 with his role in the prison-bound sports remake Mean Machine.
Just as audiences were finally standing up to take notice of the amiable tough-guy, Stratham stepped into his own as the action lead of the explosive 2002 adrenaline ride The Transporter. A sizable hit that would earn Statham increasingly prominent roles in such high profile pics as The Italian Job, and Cellular, The Transporter established Stratham as a bankable international action star and was eventually followed by a 2005 sequel that miraculously managed the improbable feat of upping the ante of the previous installment's over-the-top cartoon violence. A starring role in Ritchie's 2005 crime thriller Revolver found Stratham re-teaming with the director who launched his career with decidedly mixed results, and the following year it was off to race the clock and rescue the girl as a reformed assassin looking to make good in the hyper-intense action entry Crank. The positively outrageous Crank: High Voltage upped the ante (and the ampage) in every possible way in 2009, but not before Statham got behind the wheel for Resident Evil director Paul W.A. Anderson for the 2008 remake Death Race, discovered just how far a foolproof heist could go awry in The Bank Job, and once again put the pedal to the metal in The Transporter 3. All of this left little doubt that Statham had quickly become one of the most bankable action stars of his generation, and in 2010 he teamed with none other than Sylvester Stallone for the all-star action flick The Expendables. The action just kept coming in The Mechanic, Blitz, Killer Elite (which paired him with screen legend Robert DeNiro), Safe, and the super-sized The Expendables 2 in 2012.
Statham next joined another franchise, making a cameo appearance in Fast & Furious 6. He also reprised his role in The Expendables 3. In 2015, Statham appeared in Furious 7 and flexed his comedy chops in Spy, opposite Melissa McCarthy, earning favorable reviews and opening him to another genre.