[10 October 2002]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Ex-Special Forces operative Frank Martin (Jason Statham) lives in the South of France, on the water. He transports packages. Not like UPS, exactly. He does business with wealthy, outlaw-type clients, people who can pay for top quality work, and need it because their deals are shady. Frank doesn’t worry too much about legalities or moral nuances. He’s worked for the military, after all, and knows such definitions change over time. He doesn’t want to know names, reasons, or contents, just destinations and payments. He sets his own schedule, uses his own equipment (including a spectacularly tricked out BMW and impressive array of weapons), and dislikes surprises. Rule number one, he declares, “The deal is the deal.” No changes ever. No exceptions.
And so, when, in the first few minutes of The Transporter, Frank runs into a change—one extra man to be transported following a robbery—he refuses to drive. The cops are coming, time is short, and the exceedingly self-possessed Frank won’t budge, no matter how much money his increasingly anxious clients throw at him. By the time the getaway actually gets underway, the passengers are panic-stricken, yelling and bouncing around in the car, but Frank remains supremely unrattled, speeding his car through narrow streets and over sidewalks, stopping and screeching, reversing and skidding, slamming gears and, in one spectacular instance, driving the beemer off a bridge onto a conveniently passing car-carrying truck. It’s thrilling and absurd, and quite entertaining.
Frank rides all this excitement (including some minor damage to his beloved vehicle, most unpleasant) with a preternatural calm and authority. (He answers his phone like you might like to: “Be brief.”) Once he’s deposited his undisciplined passengers (he won’t extend the ride, even when they plead and offer still more money: “Rules are meant to be broken,” they whine; “Not mine,” says Frank, as he drives off), he heads home, a lovely waterfront property of the tawny color that typifies his Euro-affluence. Here he receives the local 5-0, one Inspector Tarconi (François Berleand), who makes it plain that he has some sense of what’s going on here, but without hard evidence, he won’t push for an arrest, just stop by for the occasional chat, maybe a coffee. Their relationship is very civilized, very ambiguous, very Rick-and-Captain Renault.
Because Frank’s situation is so sweet, you know it won’t be long before he runs into big trouble. This begins with a job for a gangster-type named Wall Street (Matt Schulze). It’s obvious that Wall Street is smarmy (his suit is slick, his hairstyle corny). But Frank figures he can handle him, just like he handles everything else, and so he takes the duffle bag away in his boot. Partway to the destination, he hears thumping. More thumping. Finally, he breaks one of his precious rules, and opens the bag. Inside, he finds a beautiful girl, Lai (Qi Shu, who has made 45 films in 6 years in Taiwan and Hong Kong), her mouth duct-taped shut. Taking pity on her, Frank gives her an Orangina, then allows her to pee, whereupon, clever girl, she endeavors to escape, scampering through underbrush and down a mountainside.
Needless to say, Lai does not escape: she is the package, after all, and at this point, part of that whole deal is the deal is the deal business. But she does give Frank something of a run for his money, which in turn makes him even more determined to keep to his schedule and deliver the package. That would have been fine, but then Wall Street decides to mess with him, and so, well, that breaks a rule and Frank has to get even. As they share a mutual enemy, Frank hooks up with Lai—in bed and in her effort to save a truckload of Chinese émigrés from being sold into slavery somewhere in France (just how this transaction works is not explained). Frank sets his sights not only on Wall Street and his no-neck or stringy-haired thugs, but also his wicked business partner, Kwai (Ric Young), who also happens to be Lai’s father. Kwai is so severely dishonorable that he’s not only willing to abuse and market his countrymen, but also to sell his troublesome daughter into slavery or worse.
And then there’s the detail of Frank’s beautiful house, the one he’s worked so long and hard to establish as the ideal combination sanctuary-armory: when the thugs come calling, with missiles and automatic weapons, Frank and Lai get away, but the gorgeously rustic Mediterranean homestead is a bust. Still, Frank remains unflapped until the villains start messing with Lai and the folks in the truck—he’s just that sort of hero, knowing that while goods might be easily lost and replaced, human beings, even if they are anonymous and line-less extras, are worth fighting for.
Better, Frank’s fighting is worth waiting for. Seriously trained and bracingly creative, Frank/Statham, no doubt inspired by director/fight choreographer Corey Yuen, not to mention writer/producer Luc Besson, who knows how to make an “international” action picture, starring just about anyone he decides to put in it. While Frank comes to the expected moral turnabouts (slavery is bad, even if it is the deal), his action scenes are, in a word, brilliant (and helped in no small way by witty camerawork by Pierre Morel and fabulous editing by Nicolas Trembasiewicz). See especially the moment when Frank finds himself confronted by a passel of hard-bodied thugs, swarming all around him on a cement warehouse floor. Frank tips an oil drum, slicks the floor, and proceeds to make full use of the darkly slippery surface, sliding his body along it, leaping and diving with unlimited panache and velocity. By the time Frank slaps a set of spikes into his boot heels, so he alone can traction his way across the oily floor, his adversaries are sprawling and falling like fish on a ship deck.
The action escalates from here, with Frank performing any number of breathtaking martial arts, parachuting, underwater, and road-warrior-style stunts. Speedy, colorful, and clever, The Transporter establishes Statham, former British Olympic team diver, as yet another next-generational, hybrid action hero—fond of Bondish gizmos, haul-ass extreme like Diesel, supremely confident like The Rock, and phenomenally, precisely athletic like Jet Li. He played psycho-football goalie in the otherwise forgettable The Mean Machine, villain to Jet Li in The One, and looked sharp in black. The fact that he’s survived his share of Guy Ritchie films (Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch) doesn’t hurt either. While his whiteness may appease folks feeling anxious about the recent incursion of black and mixed-race action heroes (if there is anyone feeling that way, and the numbers suggest otherwise), he also appears to have an appropriate sense of irony and situatedness. He is, after all, coming to a genre (and a race dynamic) in dire need of revision. Maybe he can help.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/transporter/