[15 April 2009]
The highpoint of the Transporter series so far comes early on in the second installment with a stunt so profoundly ridiculous and so far over the top (quite literally) that I could not decide whether to giggle with delight for its audacity or shake my head at its profound idiocy. As so often is the case with these movies, I chose both options, in equal measure.
Discovering too late a bomb lodged to the undercarriage of his car, our hero, Frank Martin (the transporter of the title, played with gritty elan by Jason Statham), races his trademark black Audi through a shipyard, desperately searching for some way to dislodge it (the bomb). Putting pedal to the metal, he hits a pile of boxes and timber that just so happen to form a ramp (funny how these things are always just happen to be there when they are most needed in action movies), launching the car in a direct intercept with a crane.
Somehow, Martin manages to angle things just right so that the car rotates completely around on its Y-axis, passing undercarriage side up just under a hook dangling from the crane. Naturally, the hook rather conveniently dislodges the bomb, which explodes not a second later. The car then rotates back around and Martin makes a clean landing and comes to a screeching halt just at the water’s edge. No fuss really, I do that kind of stuff all the time…
There’s nothing quite so profoundly lunatic in Transporter 3, though not for want of trying. Tethered to his car by an area-sensitive bracelet bomb (which will explode when removed a certain number of feet from the car), Martin spends most of the length of the film trying to figure out the most expeditious way to get at the baddies while staying within the tight radius of the bomb’s safety zone. So while the action is necessarily limited by confinement to a tight space, this constraint on movement allows for ever more outlandish solutions to the problems of perimeter maintenance.
For instance, his car landing in a river, and sinking fast, you’d figure Martin to be a goner. If he swims up to the surface he explodes, but if he stays put, he drowns. No way out, right? Not so fast! Swimming out to the trunk, Martin discovers (rather conveniently) several large equipment bags, which he manages to inflate using the air in his tires, and thus floats the car back to the surface in a matter of minutes. That’s perfectly reasonable, right?
Or, in the climax of the film, Martin needs to get himself on to a speeding train full of bad guys. Gunning his engine on an overpass bridge, he launches the car through a jersey barrier and lands perfectly right on top of a train car. Okay, fine. Then, after some fighting inside the train, he has to retreat hastily back his car when the train car it is resting on is decoupled. Martin clambers back into his car, guns the engine, and relaunches the car at the front portion of the train speeding away, landing this time completely inside the train car.
I mean, I can accept the first instance of getting the car on to the train – sure, happens all the time (snort). But I cannot for the life of me accept a universe in which the second event occurs—no way, that’s where I draw the line. You’ve gone too far this time, Transporter!
But of course, no one is watching these films for reasonableness, or realism, or for any other reason than reveling in their high level ridiculousness. Running purely on adrenaline, they are an unapologetically B-grade fusion of martial arts brawling, bad James Bond-esque plotting, and physics-defying car chases, a jumble of generic tropes all bound together by the peculiar fetishes—especially for loopy action set-pieces and imperiled pixieish young waifs—of Luc Besson (who writes and produces, but leaves the direction to others).
You can be forgiven for not paying attention to their nonsensical, and almost nonexistent, plots, since the films don’t seem to pay much attention to them either, using them as a loose frame on which to hang all the cartoonish action scenes. In fact, I’m guessing you could pick up any scenes from any one of the films, shuffle them up, dump them indiscriminately down into any of the other films, in any order, and they would play out pretty much the same way.
This reinforces the primacy of the actions scenes at the expense of more peripheral concerns (character, story, logic, continuity) and also posits the films as some sort of Platonic ideal of what an action film is. There’s a certain purity of movement and lunacy at work here, where context ceases to matter, and the action becomes ecstatic and transcendent.
It’s a neat trick that the film pulls off, being really idiotic and ridiculous without ever insulting the viewer’s intelligence. And this success it owes almost entirely to Jason Statham, who does such a bang up job of selling a universe where such outrageousness is not only possible, but a matter of course. Though he’s been a reliable action/comedic star since first showing up in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, with the Transporter series he has found the perfect (ahem) vehicle.
Working in a similar vein as Bruce Willis in the Die Hard films (minus the constant wise-cracking), Statham has made a reliable, occasionally stellar B-movie career for himself playing essentially the same character over and over again in films of varying quality (from wretched dreck like Chaos, to pleasant surprises like Cellular and Crank). Lean and cut, he trades brawn for a tightly wound sinuousness and lethal intelligence, reminiscent of Daniel Craig’s latter day Bond, combined with the cool charismatic reserve of Steve McQueen.
Supremely unflappable, Statham is able to sell whatever gonzo scenario or terrible script he finds himself in by always playing everything steely-eyed and straight. He is never better than in these films, playing a harried, reluctant professional of few words, who responds to endless progressions of exponential outrageousness with cool efficiency and resourcefulness.
In the Transporter films, the action (choreographed by Corey Yuen)—frenetic and elegant, at once chiseled and fluid—finds its perfect complement and exponent in Statham, a magnetic charisma of movement. Or, in less highfalutin terms, he’s just a ton of fun to watch, always game for anything, and always going above and beyond, putting in the tough work of being a tough guy (he does most of his own stunts, and the martial arts sequences, and, as this third film shows, knows how to handle a BMX bike).
With regards to this film specifically, like I said, the plot is incidental, and interchangeable. Here it has something to do with toxic chemicals, environmental summits, and kidnapped daughters of government officials .. or something. I know that things seemed a lot less high stakes than the frantic action and urgency of everything would lead one to believe, but again, the plot is below incidental.
The support characters are perhaps a bit more memorable than the other films, though. Robert Knepper, who has thrived as a lip-licking, fork-tongued, strutting villain on Prison Break, does much of the same work here, though without a ridiculous Southern drawl (sadly). But it’s new comer Natalya Rudakova, playing Martin’s human cargo, who is the real scene stealer here – or rather, her face is, or, more specifically, her freckles. Distributed widely and freely, dense everywhere, and framed by her orange-red hair, they are as unusual (in that you just never see very freckled faces in movies) as they are hypnotic.
She is pure Besson – a slightly loopy, oversexed kittenish naïf who is a mix of minx and child, overlaying the whole of the proceedings a certain air of lasciviousness that somehow never feels unwholesome. So what that she can barely act, or barely speak English – she is almost just as much a pleasure to watch as she slinks and stumbles around as Statham, and she splits the difference of the series’ sexiness with him.
Transporter 3 careens on to DVD with a deceptive two-disc set. You might be expecting a bevy of special features, but the second disc is really just to contain a downloadable digital version of the film, in case you should ever need a hit of gonzo action on your laptop (totally unnecessary, since all the best scenes can be easily found on online). On the main platter, there is a smattering of fairly routine featurettes.
A behind the scenes bit is too short to prove all that insightful, and acts more like a highlight reel of the film. Statham is interviewed briefly, but he just mainly avers how much fun the films are to make (well, yeah, of course). Three short bits on set design, visual effects and storyboarding give one the impression that much more care and thought went into the design and execution of the film than you’d imagine (not that the film is shoddy, it just gives the feeling of being made up on the fly).
The best feature by far is a somewhat amusing, totally straight faced overview of the “transporter” profession, complete with interviews with the gruff, decidedly no nonsense men who have lived the life. They all aver that it is not quite as glamorous or as unhinged as it appears in the films (you think?), one of them making sure that we the audience know that the car stunts seen in the film are in fact not only not a routine part of the job, and are for the most part impossible anyway (get out!). They all profess that the makeup of Martin’s CV – part chauffeur, part body guard, part solider for hire – is mostly accurate, and that the job requires a stony amoral indifference and detachment.
The commentary track with Olivier Megaton (No, really! You can look it up) is much more astute and insightful then I had probably expected (especially with such an appropriately nonsensical last name pseudonym), lending the film a sheen of intelligence which may not be apparent when watching it through the first time. Too bad Megaton’s (no honestly – that’s really his name!) thick Gallic accent is at times too impenetrable to suss out what he is trying to say, especially when he gets excited and starts talking a mile a minute.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/72985-transporter-3/