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Transporter, The

Reviewed By Andrew Howe
Posted 10/13/02 15:36:34

"Take me far away from this film."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

What do you get when you combine an appealing actor with a strong track record, a writer who invariably manages to come up with something a little different, and a director fresh from an extended stint in the frenetic world of Hong Kong action flicks? You get The Transporter, a by-the-numbers actioner that makes me wonder why I ever rated Jason Statham, Luc Besson and Cory Yuen so highly.

A recent news report suggests Besson is considering collaborating with Sylvester Stallone on a future script, and his efforts here cast further doubt on his sanity. Besson and co-writer Robert Mark Kamen are no slouches at the typewriter (their credits include the inventive and atmospheric The Fifth Element and the cheerfully amoral Leon), and I can only imagine they viewed The Transporter as a freewheeling, semi-satirical holiday from worthy but draining projects. This is why I can summarise the plot in the following two lines:

Hired hand Frank Martin (Statham) rescues the resourceful Lai (Shu Qi) from the clutches of a slave trader named Wall Street (Matt Schulze), and spends the next sixty minutes dealing with the poorly aimed bullets, inept goons and exploding scenery that litter the road to an inevitable showdown with Mr. Street and his left and right-hand men. He wins.

OK, so I could probably pull a similar stunt on Besson’s other scripts (dopey hit man helps prepubescent vamp take out the guys who killed her family), but The Transporter fails to rise above its simplistic origins. If you’re going to hang your hat on a narrative that consists of nothing more than a flimsy excuse for violence you’d better have enjoyable performances and high-octane action to back it up, and it’s something of a surprise that the film scores so poorly in this area.

Jason Statham excels at making hopeless losers appear strangely attractive (witness his efforts in Ghosts of Mars and Snatch), but Frank Martin is cut from the classic action-hero cloth – he’s self-centred and anally retentive, but he’s definitely not a loser. Statham’s roguish charm is wasted on the role, leaving us with an unflappable Bond clone who loses our support in the first five minutes and never quite gets it back (unless you consider placing your principles above human life to be a desirable quality).

The remaining performances are a mixed bag – Schulze is hamstrung by a villain who’s one of the least-threatening evildoers in action-film history, but veteran French actor François Berleand conspires to make his sympathetic police officer more appealing than the nominal hero. Credit must also be given to Qi, whose comparatively vibrant demeanour livens things up immensely, even if it’s in the service of an annoyingly sassy character who exists for no better reason than to prove that Martin’s a chick magnet and give him a nudge in the mayhem department whenever he’s thinking about letting the whole thing lie (which is at least once every ten minutes – the word “justice” has evidently been deleted from his personal dictionary).

Cory Yuen’s something of legend on the Hong Kong scene (most notably for his collaborations with Jet Li), but there’s nothing in The Transporter that hasn’t been done better elsewhere. I’ll admit that I’ve never been a fan of chop socky, but if you enjoy watching high-flying heroes beat the crap out of hordes of stuntmen you might find something of interest in the climactic showdown. However, Martin’s failure to cop much of a beating defuses most of the tension (a hero should ideally take a hell of a pounding before he triumphs), and none of the remaining stunts will raise the eyebrows of anyone who’s already seen Ronin and Mad Max 2.

The gunplay is also surprisingly muted – despite Martin’s willingness to engineer a bank robber’s demise early in the piece he’s evidently under the impression that he’s playing the lead role in Terminator 2, evidencing his commitment to reducing the body count by ventilating most of the scumbags in a non-lethal fashion. It’s action-flick lite, and while I suspect Yuen’s hands were tied by the requirement to bring the film in at a PG-13 rating the odd grievous impact wound suggests he could have taken it a little further if he’d possessed the inclination. The script is also notable for failing to serve up the mini-climaxes that are the genre’s stock-in-trade – nothing much actually happens for the first seventy minutes, with minor-league skirmishes and laughable attempts at character building the only things standing between the viewer and a well-earned nap.

Serving up tiresome characters, a reheated narrative and emasculated action sequences is no crime if you’re making a Chuck Norris flick, but to waste the talents of Statham, Besson and Yuen on a film that’s no better than Missing in Action is nothing less than a crying shame. I can appreciate their need for a break from the daily grind now and again, but a trip to Majorca would have been a considerably better investment than taking their siesta on the screen.

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