by Mel Valentin
Among other, far more notable (and memorable), films, 2002 saw the theatrical release of Luc Besson's "The Transporter," a solid, if stylish, martial arts/action flick elevated by the presence of character actor turned leading man Jason Statham as Frank Martin, a former Special Forces soldier turned profit-minded mercenary. It also helped that "The Transporter's" fight scenes were choreographed by Corey Yuen ("Kiss of the Dragon", "The One," "]X-Men," "Lethal Weapon 4") and, more importantly, that Jason Statham did most of his own stunts (Statham helpfully goes shirtless in multiple scenes). Produced and co-written by Besson (but directed by Yuen), "The Transporter's" routine script provided a loose structure (read: threadbare excuse) for Frank's character arc, from rule-bound, amoral mercenary with a semi-compelling backstory to compassionate-minded action hero.After a car stunt-filled prologue that introduces the audience to Frank and the inflexible, straightforward rules he lives by (e.g., stick to the terms of the deal, don't exchange names, and don't look inside whatever you're transporting from point A to point B), Frank takes a breather, cleans out his car (a black BMW, with interchangeable license plates), receives a friendly, if inquisitive, police detective, Tarconi (François Berléand), at the door of his cliffside villa on the French Riviera, and takes his next assignment. Before we move on, however, it's worth noting that Frank limits himself to transporting goods and people, but never participating in explicitly illegal actions (he could be, however, charged as an accessory before/after the fact, but the police are too slow to catch him in the act). Promising once again to abide by his self-imposed rules, he accepts delivery of an oversized black bag. A flat tire forces him to open his trunk, where, naturally enough, his curiosity gets the better of him (the contents of the bag move and sigh), discovering a young woman, Lai (Shu Qi), inside the black bag.
"Ladies and gents, Mr. Jason Statham. Mr. Jason Statham, ladies and gents."
After a lapse of judgment leads to Lai's near escape, Frank delivers Lai to Wall Street (Matt Schulze), a glowering, well-dressed thug who, immediately upon delivery of the black bag containing Lai, asks Frank to deliver a briefcase to another location. The briefcase, of course, isn't what it seems, and Frank's decision to open the black bag comes back to haunt him with a vengeance, or rather, with missile launchers and submachine guns, which, in turn, lead to Frank's decision to exact some payback of his own, even as his withdrawn, loner persona melts in the presence of Lai's considerable charms and her story about an illegal smuggling operation and a second, even more powerful villain with a secret connection to Lai.
Of course, Frank gets the girl (in an awkward, underwritten scene meant to cover up Shu Qi's English-language deficiencies), saves the day (and a few lives), and emerges the crowd-pleasing action hero, but not before Frank cuts a wide, mostly bloodless (The Transporter is, after all, rated "PG-13") swath of bone-crunching mayhem across the French Rivera, sometimes by four-wheeled transportation (including an extended chase scene by truck and plane) and sometimes by hand (most notably, a fight scene where Frank, shirtless once again, takes on the villain's henchmen covered in oil grease, a neat trick that provides him with a distinct advantage over his less athletic foes).
At this point in his filmmaking career, Luc Besson has turned his back on more ambitious, expensive projects (i.e., The Fifth Element), content with producing escapist, easily digestible, easily forgettable, action flicks defined by underwritten, storylines, stock characters, predictable situations, and standard issue performances. In the case of The Transporter, the performances are undermined by Besson's eccentric decision to include three characters, all speaking accented English (e.g., British, French, and Chinese), in the same scenes, making them almost unintelligible (not that it matters much, overall). Besson's most recent efforts, however, have been also defined by his desire to create vehicles for his favorite stars/performers (mostly Jet Li in several, increasingly weak efforts but now Jason Statham as well).Ultimately, however, criticisms of Besson's lackluster scripts have to give way to, or contend with, Jason Statham's central performance. Statham's performance may not be Oscar-caliber (he has a limited range), but as far as the action hero mantle goes (with aging American stars bowing out to run for state office or justifiably fading into obscurity), Statham may be, to borrow a phrase, the real deal. It helps, of course, that Statham's background in martial arts (and scuba diving in one scene) help "sell" the action scenes. Statham performs most of fight scenes himself (and proves himself capable of complex moves), except the more obviously dangerous ones (where we see Frank in long shot).
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originally posted: 09/09/05 13:04:22