One might righteously (or self-righteously) ask the question, does the world really need Transporter 3, the third installment of the relatively under-the-radar action franchise fathered by loony French auteur Luc Besson (he’s the writer/producer of all three installments, but not their director)? Well, if the third episode of any franchise turns out as well as this one has, then the answer must be a resounding “Absolutely!” Taking the directorial reins from stunt coordinator Cory Yuen (who helmed the first film) and Louis Letterier (Transporter 2) is graffiti artist-turned-filmmaker Olivier Megaton, and yes, according to Stephanie Zacharek, the name is too good to be true—it’s an assumed moniker taken in remembrance of the bombing of Hiroshima, on the 30th anniversary of which the director was born. But it’s appropriate nonetheless to characterize the wicked energy that runs through the picture like high-voltage current.
Transporter 3 bears superficial resemblances to Quantum of Solace, namely a wily, slightly wimpy villain in charge of facilitating environmental disaster under the guise of environmental protection. But outside of Quantum’s admirable attempts to infuse Bond with recognizable humanity and to take measure of it as it modulates (some might say slows down) the narrative, Transporter 3 trumps the new Bond movie in just about every other way. It is, like Quantum, edited like shattered glass, but here the shards have been choreographed so that a sense of spatial geography is maintained. There’s never a doubt as to what blow is landing where, and the hand-to-hand combat is actually enhanced by the surging-receding tempo of the visuals. (I don’t recall any other movie making me laugh out loud at something as simple as the brazen, cheeky crispness of a smash cut to a car-- the Audi-- coming to a sliding highway stop on what seems like the edge of the world’s thinnest dime.) The action is cheeky too—the movie starts with a superb sequence that intercuts a rip-roaring chase with the serene pleasure of two men fishing, expertly timed so that their conversation punctuates the action with astonishing rhythmic precision, and it just goes uphill from there. (A memorable episode involving two trailer trucks and the ingenuity of the talented transporter’s two-wheeled driving skills--glimpsed briefly in the trailer-- has surely already entered the annals of the all-time classics of roadway pursuit.)
But the movie belongs almost entirely to Jason Statham, who provides a perfectly sleek, impossibly muscled corollary to the movie’s impressive design and filmmaking prowess. Statham is about as stripped down and graphically functional an action hero as moviegoers have ever seen—that bullet- headed profile highlights a face not humorless but almost always engaged in some measure of an industrial-strength scowl, and it sits on top of a body that is perhaps as convincingly cut a weapon we’ve seen since the days of Bruce Lee. (I don’t know what the star’s actual martial arts abilities are, but no matter--the Transporter series is not selling, of all things, verisimilitude, and Statham sells himself, with the help of his directors, quite nicely, thank you.)
He wears his no-frills black jacket, tie and crisp white shirt as a faint echo of Bond at his most dapper, but the effect on Statham is functional style—he rarely looks less than spiffy, but if the situation calls for it (and it will call for it), you can damn well bet that jacket and shirt will get pressed into service when a set of nunchaku are simply unavailable. (The effect is something like Enter the Dragon by way of MacGyver.) Statham’s trump card (and the series’) is his talent as an actor of some style and grace as well-- he has elevated far less worthy vehicles than this with his stillness, the sense that he is listening to, not just tolerating, his on-screen companions, and his crack timing (assisted, no doubt, by the movie’s intuitive and quick-witted editors). But Statham is sharp enough that his performance already feels felt out in terms of the way the film is pieced together—he’s a corker all on his own.
(I’ve come to enjoy Statham’s big-screen appearances, even in crap like Death Race, so much that I finally had to admit to my wife that I just might have a man-crush on the actor. She was disgusted, but when I revealed as much to a wise colleague in an e-mail over the weekend, he told me of an editor who once advised him that we can't let our sense of beauty at the movies be determined by our sexual orientation. Words to watch Transporter movies by, for sure!)
Earlier this year, in The Bank Job, Statham effortlessly conveyed a sense of assurance mixed with fears borne of family concerns and sexual tension, and infused his robber-with-a-conscience character with far more than the standard issue invulnerable swagger. As the transporter Frank Martin, whose allegiance to his own code of asking no questions and not getting involved with the motives of his employers is here put to the ultimate test, he’s working far more inside the stoic and no-nonsense template we’ve come to expect of modern action heroes. But part of the kick in watching Transporter 3 comes from seeing just how he is seduced into bending those rules and to what degree, underneath all the rock-hard conviction, he really wants to be seduced.
The plot involves Frank being hired by a slimy American environmentalist (Prison Break’s Robert Knepper, who looks like Morrissey as a desiccated second-rate playboy) to transport the spectacularly freckled Valentina (Natalya Rudakova), daughter of a blackmailed Ukranian official (Jeroen Krabbe), back to her father as payment for authorization of the delivery of some very nasty toxic waste to the Black Sea port at Odessa. Frank must balance the overtures of a mysterious group of assailants who seem to want him (and her) dead with his employer’s insurance policy, which comes in the form of explosive bracelets that will detonate if either driver or passenger moves further than 75 feet from the vehicle. (The movie tests this potentially explosive dilemma in a spectacular sequence in which Frank, separated from his Audi by another low-rent transporter, pursues the car by bike, across rooftops and through plate glass in the hopes of not increasing the separation to a fatal 76 feet.) Initially turned on by the efficiency of Frank’s driving and fighting, Valentina does what she can to get under our hero’s skin, and part of the surprise in Transporter 3 is not only how believably effective she is at it, but that because of Statham’s understated, burgeoning interest in her as something more than annoying freight (they pass the time by talking about their ideal meals), we don’t see the dip into romance as an unnecessary diversion. The movie makes you believe the characters deserve their moment to, as Valentina says in her charmingly broken English, “feel the sex” before they might quite possibly die.
A movie that moves this fast, this swiftly, can paper over a lot of silliness, and Transporter 3 certainly disguises its share. But a movie that moves this fast can also unexpectedly take your breath away with quick bits of business, like that highway stop, or a sly smile flitting across an actor’s face (Statham gets lots of these, as does series veteran Francois Berleand as Frank’s beleaguered ally on the French police force), and it can seduce us much like Frank ends up at the hands of his bespeckled passenger. (Rudakova is spunky and sexy, but she’s no replacement for the first movie’s delectable Shu Qi, seen at left.) At times Transporter 3 seems more like a shiny toy, or a shiny car commercial, than a movie—- Megaton occasionally overdoes some of the picture’s signature ad campaign-style image speed-shifting. But an action thriller that generates as consistently wide a grin as this one does shouldn't be made to suffer too many such relatively churlish complaints. Transporter 3 is a goofy movie gift-- loud, wild, absurd, and unexpectedly pleasurable-- and it comes wrapped in as-yet-unassuming, whiz-bang packaging that I hope its filmmaking shepherds use several more times before the franchise, and its singularly entertaining star, get too big for that black suit and tie.
UPDATE 12/1/08: This is from Wednesday, November 26, but it's new to me-- Armond White registers his approval. (Is "approval" a strong-enough word?)