In the last few years -- more or less since the failure of his embarrassing Joan of Arc epic The Messenger -- former wunderkind director Luc Besson has become a fantastically prolific writer/producer. (The IMDB claims he has nine projects lined up for next year.) His latest, The Transporter -- a swift if sometimes ridiculous action film, with venerable Hong Kong director/action choreographer Cory Yuen behind the camera -- is opening around the country, less than a month after Wasabi, another Besson production, showed up in limited release.
The Transporter is another chapter in the Hong Konging of Mr. Besson, and not just because Yuen -- who was action director for Kiss of the Dragon, a Jet Li film Besson produced and co-wrote -- was hired to direct. It's another clear attempt to transfer the aesthetic of '80s and '90s Hong Kong cinema to a Hollywood production.
Jason Statham, best known as a veteran of Guy Ritchie's Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, stars as Frank Martin, a very highly paid professional courier headquartered in France. Frank can afford to charge a bit more than UPS, because he is clearly the world's greatest getaway driver, and most of his deliveries involve a degree of illegality. He is one of those ultra-professional crooks: Like, for instance, Donald E. Westlake's Parker, Frank has a rigorous set of rules that he adheres to.
Of course, it is the breaking of one of his rules -- "Never look in the package" -- that kicks the plot into gear. In this case, the sack he is transporting contains Lai (Shu Qi), a gorgeous and spunky young woman, who is being kept on ice by the evil "Wall Street" (Matt Schulze).
Frank still makes the delivery, but his clients are displeased with the breach of protocol -- at least that's what the film claims, though it doesn't really make sense -- and go after him. Soon it's Frank and Lai against a sinister mob of evildoers, who may or may not be involved in smuggling illegal immigrants. (What do you think?)
Statham, sporting a nearly shaved head that makes him look a little like Bruce Willis in Die Hard and a whole lot like Woody Harrelson in Natural Born Killers -- makes an effective action hero in the zombie-like mold of Arnold in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Unfortunately, his character also is nearly as invulnerable as the T-800, which, as in Vin Diesel's xXx, robs the film of much of its suspense. If Frank can survive a fiery explosion, why should we worry when he's surrounded by weaponless thugs?
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Yuen (often billed as Corey Yuen or Yuen Kwai) is a master of martial arts staging, so it's a little disappointing that the first big action scene is a car chase. It's exciting but silly, in the James Bond mode, with one ingenious bit of shtick that defies credibility. But we don't get a fight until nearly a half-hour in, and that's when Yuen's virtues become more apparent. The film's best scene -- in which Frank has to battle a pack of bad guys on a slippery floor -- is pure Hong Kong stuff. (In fact, it's more or less a lift from Once Upon a Time in China III.)
Outside of its action concepts, the script by Besson and Robert Mark Kamen (The Fifth Element, The Karate Kid) varies between mediocre and awful. Shu Qi, making her American film debut, has a hard enough time with her accent without also having to keep a straight face while uttering lines like, "He was a bastard, but he was still my father!" (François Berleand, as Frank's cop buddy, is also occasionally incomprehensible.) Nor is the plot anything new. The hook is old hat, reminiscent of Walter Hill's 1978 The Driver (among others), as well as The Hire, the series of Internet shorts BMW commissioned from Ritchie, Ang Lee and other first-rank directors.
What's most disappointing is the almost utter lack of humor. Yuen isn't just a great director of action; in several of his Jet Li classics (Fong Sai-Yuk, High Risk, My Father Is a Hero), he displayed a wonderful comic touch. Here the script leaves it almost entirely suppressed.
In the mindless action sweepstakes, however, there's still enough here to place The Transporter above big-bang gibberish like xXx. At least the film has a few moments where the action seems to be transpiring on a human scale.