As part of "The Expendables Week," I'm re-presenting my reviews of the movies that elevated Jason Statham to the position of action super star--the Luc Besson-produced "Transporter" series. Like many of the reviews found on the various Cinema Steve blogs, these originally appeared on my blog at rottentomatoes.com between the years of 2005 and 2008.
The Transporter (2002)
Starring: Jason Statham, Qi Shu, and François Berléand
Director: Louis Leterrier and Corey Yuen
Rating: Six of Ten Stars
Frank Martin (Statham) is the underworld's chief courier, and he can deliver anything and anyone to any place, no questions asked. But when one particular package turns out to be a bound and gagged Chinese girl (Shu), Frank is forced to take on the mantle of hero.
I think I saw something in this movie that most reviewers did not, and I think that caused me to have an even more favorable impression of this film than they did.
Frank Martin and everything about him reminded me of Bean Bandit from the classic "Gunsmith Cats" graphic novels, and the film felt like an unauthorized live-action version of a Bean Bandit adventure. That character, too, is a hard-bitten rogue with his own never-compromised code of honor, drives a ultra-costumized car, will deliver anything anywhere against any odds, and can kick the ass of those he can't outdrive. In every detail that matters, Frank Martin is Bean Bandit. And like "Gunsmith Cats," this movie is more concerned about guns, fast cars, and action than about tight story logic.
The echoes of "Gunsmith Cats" and Bean Bandit aside, this is also just a fun ride of a movie. Frank Martin is a cool action hero in the mold of an Old West cowboy or an 1980s/1990s Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger character. Unlike the characters portrayed by them, however, Frank is a man of style and refinement--his car is always spotless and his black suits and ties are always crisply pressed. Even after an extended fight, Frank looks sharp.
The biggest flaw with this picture is that I had the sense that filmmakers didn't have the guts to take the film where it needed to go. The film occupies a middle-ground between an early 1980s action film with a bit of a Dirty Harry vibe coming from its detatched-yet-heroically minded central character, and the over-the-top crazy comic-book-action rampage... and more than once is swings to one extreme or the other. The end result is a film that's mildly frustrating to watch, because it ends up being neither fish nor fowl. It's got action and plenty of it, but it's so inconsistent in its tone that it's hard to sit back and enjoy it.
And this is a shame, because Jason Statham plays a very good Bean Bandit... sorry, Frank Martin. If the vehicle had been just a little more soundly constructed, he could have taken us for a spectacular ride instead of a merely okay one.
Transporter 2 (2005)
Starring: Jason Statham, Katie Nauta, and Allesandro Gassman
Director: Louis Leterrier
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars
Frank Martin, a worldclass driver and killer (Statham), is hired to chauffeur and protect the son of a high-placed US government official. The boy is kidnapped, but that's only a prelude to a far more devious and far-reaching plot that only Frank (and a whole lot bullets and fancy driving) can stop.
When I saw the original "Transporter," I viewed it as an unauthorized movie based on the Bean Bandit character from the "Gunsmith Cats" graphic novel series. Its only real flaw was that its creators couldn't make up their minds whether they were making a serious, down-to-earth crime drama with fast cars, or an over-the-top comic-booky action film.
With "Transporter 2," the filmmakers came to a decision, and we are treated to one outrageous, thrilling, and waaaay over-the-top action sequence after another. What's more, the plot is clever and complicated enough that it keeps delivering unexpected twists almost up to the very end. (This is another step up from the first film, I suppose... the plot there was pretty straight-forward.)
Jason Statham is great as the always calm and coldblooded Frank, but, as someone once said, a hero is only as good as the villains he fights... and in "Transporter 2" Frank is up against some very nasty bad guys. The lead heavies are played by Allesandro Gassman (a druglord who puts every letter in EVIL) and Katie Nauta (a psychopathic sex-kitten who fires more bullets in 30 seconds than are fired in the entirety of most major wars), and they are both a joy to watch. The actors, the plot, and the action sequences all blend together seamlessly to make this a great movie experience.
So, why am I only giving it 8 Stars? Well, that is because there are two major flaws that made me sigh with irritation.
First, there is a pretty nifty scene where Frank uses a firehose to beat the living tar out of a bunch of gun-toting bad guys. It's a Jackie Chan sort of scene, although I suspect much of it is done with computer animation and clever editing rather than actual props. Unfortunately, the climax of the scene completely breaks continuity with the entire fight that proceeded.
Second, there is the final dispatching of Nauta's character. It's too easy and too coincidental for a character that has been built up the way she is during the film. I'm not spoiling anything by stating that she dies--if you've seen more than two of these kinds of movies, you know she's too evil to make it through the story alive--and it needs to be mentioned because that character's death is badly done both from a storytelling and a action movie staple perspective. There isn't even a touch of irony in the way she dies... it's just an "oops... she's dead" ending.
Nonetheless, I think this is a move worth seeing if you love over-the-top action films (doubly-so if you're a fan of "Gunsmith Cats".)
Transporter 3 (2008)
Starring: Jason Statham, Natalya Rudakova, Robert Knepper and François Berléand
Director: Olivier Megaton
Rating: Five of Ten Stars
Professional driver Frank Martin (Statham) is a man with a reputation that he'll deliver anything to any place a road will take him and his souped-up Audi, so long as his clients accept a few simple conditions that Frank insists upon. However, when a would-be client won't abide by Frank's rules nor take no for an answer, Frank finds himself forced to drive a mysterious package and an equally mysterious and totally obnoxious young woman (Rudakova) across Europe toward an ever-shifting destination... and if he tries to abandon the job, he'll be blown to bits by an explosive bracelet he's been fitted with.
"Transporter 3" is a step below the wild comic book action of the film immediatetly preceeding it in the series... and even a step below the film that started it all.
I suspect the filmmakers thought they were being topical with a half-assed environmental theme and oh-so-global-community-relevant-and-respectful with the films villains. They are eeeeeeevil American industrialists who are using any means necessary to force a righteous and pure-hearted Ukrainian politician to let them turn his nation into a chemical dumping ground. The truth, however, is that I don't think I've seen an environmentally-themed action flick this stupid since Steven Seagal's "On Deadly Ground". At least this film never gets preachy.
It's also not particularly logical or even intelligent in the way it's executed. The bad guys have grabbed the daughter of the pure-hearted politician in order to force him to do their bidding and they somehow feel the need to move her across Europe using a guy who doesn't work for them. A stupid plan that is doomed to fail. Why even move her anywhere in the first place? And why do the eeeeeeevil industrialists insist on having their cargoships full of toxic waste unloaded in the Ukraine? Why not just let Somali pirates hijack them? Or just dump the waste in Somalia where no one will be able to oppose them? (Or some other equally corrupt and disorganized hell hole... the world is full of them.)
But being stupid isn't the worst aspect of this film; I can forgive a certain level of stupid in a movie series that's evolving into a small-scale James Bond-type deal. The worst aspect of this film is that it never gets really exciting. It features some nice car chases, some okay fight scenes where Frank opens many cans of whoop-ass on hapless mooks, and a couple of cool action set-pieces, but the material that exists between them is poorly written. Not even Frank is very interesting in this film.
This is one of those pictures where the cast is let down by a weak script and a less-than-talented director.
Statham plays his usual laconic I'd-as-soon-kick-your-ass-as-talk-to-you character, but the lines he does have lack punch and the fight scenes he is placed in are ineptly choreographed.
Natalya Rudakova has a different look to her than most actresses that appear in films like this, and I think she might be an okay performer... but it's hard to tell because her character was so annoying throughout the movie. I can't for the life of me understand how the romance that developed between her character, Valentina, and Frank was supposed to have come from. (I was further annoyed by her character's tendency to wear too much eyeshadow. One of the evil characters did it in "Transporter 2" and now we have the heroine doing it in "Transporter 3". Will this become a signature of the series?)
All the flaws present in "Transporter 3" make this a movie that all but the most hungry-for-an-action-film viewers can skip.