Partway through Transporter 3, Frank Martin (Jason Statham) takes off his shirt. He has a reason, in that he’s fighting a room full of thugs and needs freedom of movement, but the point of his decision is far from practical. Shirtless, Frank is an instant object, observed by audience surrogate Valentina (Natalya Rudakova), whose desire for his sensationally hard abs is underlined by repeated close-ups of her face, lips licked and eyes devouring.
In another movie, this moment might serve as a reversal of conventions. Unlike James Bond, for instance, action hero Frank doesn’t expect to sleep with every supermodel-looking woman who wanders near him. And unlike Jason Bourne, he knows exactly who he is (“just a driver,” as he says repeatedly) and what he wants (a vacation). Frank’s focus on his job is absolute and even admirable, in a perverse way. He doesn’t judge his employers or their means and ends. He doesn’t want to know any more than he needs to complete each extremely lucrative mission. Frank doesn’t mince words or waste time, he doesn’t pay much attention to what he’s asked to transport. Again and again, and now, for a third time again, Frank drives.
And… when the situation calls for it, he fights. In this case, set in an auto shop and choreographed by the great Corey Yuen, he takes on multiple no-name and highly skilled bruisers, each chop and kick precise, each use of a prop (tire irons, car lifts, chains) providing maximum (loud, brutal) payoff. And each time Frank sets his jaw or lifts his leg, Valentina, this movie’s “package,” shows just how much she’s impressed. Until this point in the film, she’s been a standard package, inert and resolved to silence. No matter what he’s asked her, no matter how much he’s pleaded with her to divulge some useful bit of background, she has pouted and looked dour, suggesting by such non-answers that she’s angry and resigned and just-so-adorably exotic, in the sense that she misses nuance and inverts English syntax (“What matters my name?”). Her interest in her surroundings is piqued by the sight of shirtless Frank, however, and from this point on, Valentina is suddenly more engaged in her own plot.
Unfortunately for Frank, that only means he has more obstacles to overcome en route to his movie-closing vacation. The plot he eventually pieces together is unnecessarily complex and mostly nonsensical. Valentina has been kidnapped in order to force her mucky-muck Ukrainian minister father Leonid (Jerome Krabbé) to sign some contracts agreeing to take in ships full of toxic waste (so toxic that in the film’s first scene, a couple of hapless sailors who peep the waste are immediately overcome by a skin-bubbling-and-melting effect). While her dad meets with men armed with paper and pens, Valentina is en route in Frank’s car from Marseilles to Odessa. He’s been tapped for the gig by Johnson (Robert Knepper), whose mode of persuasion is old-school unsubtle. Frank and Valentina are both outfitted with bracelets that trigger gigantic explosions if they move more than 25 feet from the car (this consequence is demonstrated by her first driver [David Atrakchi] in unsurprisingly sensational fashion).
As Frank discovers what’s at stake and unravels who wants what, he devises first to get the job done and then, because he actually falls for his wet noodle of a passenger, to save her. As he reconsiders options and reconfigures missions moment to moment (or, in the unimaginative phrasing of his employer, “goes off the reservation”), Frank sends his car through the usual sorts of impossible stunts: driving off an overpass onto a moving train, driving off a bridge into deep water, tipping the whole business onto two wheels in order to drive in between two moving trucks on the highway.
Such exploits are a hallmark of the franchise and Frank handles them with typical aplomb. He appears prepared to manage any crisis, devising brilliant ways out of all predicaments in mere seconds. He looks less comfortable handling the girl, who is not only stubborn, but also vapid and self-indulgent: when she decides to get drunk on a bottle of convenience store vodka, Frank has to contend with her screaming commotion during an especially complicated speeding-down-the-highway feat.
If Valentina’s incoherence is irksome, Frank’s manly reticence lurches between earnest characterization and dry comedy. When Valentina wonders how he can possibly resist her charms (“Am I not sexy?”), she determines the problem lies within him: “You’re the gay!” she deduces. Frank looks predictably frustrated. “No,” he sighs, “I’m not the gay.” Maybe. But if Valentina represents the straight, he might start reconsidering his options.