Sunday, November 30, 2008


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?)


Anonymous said...

If you have the chance, and space on your rental queue, check out Megaton's Red Siren.

Paul Matwychuk said...

Hi, Dennis.

I was so excited to read your enthusiastic review of TRANSPORTER 3 -- I love the first two movies, with Jason Statham's rare combination of physical grace and dry wit, the reliable ingenuity of the fights and the chase scenes, and Luc Besson's unsurpassed eye for beautiful, long-legged women. I was under the impression that the TRANSPORTER series was slowly acquiring a quiet cult among critics, and so I was surprised to see the lukewarm reviews this one was getting. You'd think that critics would be eager to celebrate a high-spirited lark like TRANSPORTER 3 especially when QUANTUM OF SOLACE was such a bringdown. I wondered: could Olivier Megaton have dropped a dud?

Your review gives me renewed confidence, and I'm hoping to squeeze in a screening of T3 during today's round of Christmas shopping.

Headquarters 10 said...

Told you it rocked.

Anonymous said...

Valentina is the greatest female protagonist since the days of Hawks and Sturges. Nah, she's better than that.

By far the best of the series. And way more entertaining and less dreary than Quantum; At least Frank Martin doesn't leave his friends to rot in Dumpsters!

(Do we have Haggis or Forster to blame for that vile, depressing, miserable and blasphemous image, the lowest low of 2008 cinema and the worst moment in any Bond film ever?)

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed the first two TRANSPORTER films and this one looks like more of the same. Never a bad thing. I enjoyed your fantastic write-up. I will have to check it, ASAP.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting your thoughts about Transporter 3, Dennis! I wasn't able to see the film over the holiday weekend, but I hope to see it soon. I really enjoyed the first two films. I don't crush on a lot of modern movie stars since so many of them seem made of plastic, but I've got it bad for Jason Statham!

On a side note, Statham has a martial arts background and is supposedly a kickboxing expert. I think this helps the fight scenes in his films look so darn good. He also does a lot of his own stunts, which is rare for any actor these days. Generally speaking, I think he's the best action star the movies have seen in 10 years if not longer.

Thom McGregor said...

In my (known as "the wife") defense, I did not offer my disgust as a reaction to Mr. Statham's maleness, but rather that he is no more interesting or crushworthy to me than a walking, barely talking exposed muscle. I couldn't be less homophobic, even when one of the men in question is my husband!

tom hughes said...

Interesting write-up, thanks Dennis. I had always unconsciously dismissed the Transporter series, but this makes a good case for checking out the third one when it makes its way to the UK.

A question for the floor: is it worth visiting the first two in the series? Or is it a case of the third film, and the fabulously-named Megaton, transcending the rest of the series?

Anonymous said...

p.s. If you want to see Statham at his best I highly recommend checking out The Bank Job, which was easily one of the best movies released last year. He's much more than a walking, barely talking exposed muscle in that film.

As for seeing the previous Transporter films, I would say yes since there is some very minor character development between Transporter 1 and 2.

Thom McGregor said...

Kimberly, forgive me for my description of Mr. Statham. It's how I feel, but I respect others' opinions as being as true as mine. Not commenting often, I literally forgot that someone other than Dennis would read what I wrote! I'm serious. And of course I respect the opposite view. I mean, otherwise I'd be divorced, obviously!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Whoa! Catch-up time...

Peter: Somewhere along the way I have heard rumblings about Red Siren, so thanks for your reminder. I just shook up my Netflix queue this afternoon and got some of the cobwebs out-- I will go back right now and place Red Siren at or near the top.

Paul: Please let me know what you think of it. As much as I'm happy that Armond White seems to have loved the movie, his review kinda reminded me of the guys in my old film courses who wouldn't admit to liking a movie like Transporter 3 unless there was some intellectually justifiable way of doing so. Armond isn't quite up to that game-- he clearly loves it for what it is, and maybe the difference is that I don't find it as momentous a movie as he does. But it is, anyway you slice it, a keen piece of work and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Matthew: You have not steered me wrong yet this year, my friend. Is your middle name "Oracle," by any chance?

Bandit: Andrew needs to roll some tape while you talk about Natalya Rudakova! I didn't have such a strong reaction to Giannini's fate in Quantum of Solace as you did. Am I misremembering, or is Bond's decision to leave him there not born more of expediency than heartlessness? I can't imagine why he would leave him to such an ignominious repose other than he had to in order to avoid a deadly situation of his own.

J.D.: Hope you enjoy it! You're right-- never a bad thing.

Kimberly: Thanks for the update on Statham's kickboxer status. That seems obvious, now that you mention it. Ms. Zacharek noted that he had been a championship diver, and that may well be, but I always thought he looked too built up for that. (He's got the slick head for it though!) I would agree with you too that he's certainly the action star I most look forward to seeing these days. Don't you think also that he's a much better actor than he's generally given credit for? Maybe you have to be predisposed to enjoy his screen presence to find the evidence in Transporter 3 (personally, I think you just need eyes and a heart), but certainly the evidence is there in spades within The Bank Job. It's a shame that movie didn't do better business that it did-- it's easily the best showcase he's had for his talent as an actor so far, that I've seen anyway. How's life treating you, by the way, my friend?

Tom: I do think that the entire series is a lot of fun. The first one is terrific, buoyed as it is by Cory Yuen's limber touch as stunt coordinator and director and the presence of Shu Qi. (It is rumored that Louis Letterier, who directed the second film, had a strong hand in the first one as well.) Statham is good too, but not quite as settled into the whole tone of the enterprise as he is by 3. I have to admit that my one and only screening of Transporter 2 was not all that it could have been-- at a drive-in that had not yet been optimized with Technalight, so the image was dimmer and blurrier than what I'd previously been spoiled by, and I also missed about a half-hour of it. I have a feeling that when I rent the DVD for my upcoming holiday Transporter double bill that I'll like it much better. That said, I'd still give the nod to 3 as best of the series so far. I hope you enjoy it too and do check out the previous installments.

Thom: I must attempt to clear the air here. First, in no post, either this one or "The Thankfuls" are you "the wife." You are there, and in my heart, "my wife." But I apologize if I inadvertently implied that you were in any way homophobic in your registered disgust at my Jason Statham man-crush. You are, in truth, the least homophobic person I know who is not him-or-herself gay. I understand that you would have no objection if I crushed on Ewan McGregor or Ralph Fiennes. They're just not my type, and it's certainly clear that Statham is not yours. Sorry if this was not immediately clear in my writing. Now keep it down, wouldja? I'm down here in the den and The Bank Job is starting on Showtime, and I'd appreciate a little privacy...

Steve C. said...

Just saw this last night, and while I think it's weaker than both the sleek original and the utterly daft, can-you-top-this second entry, I'm still enjoying the series. I think what keeps the series from collapsing under its own ridiculousness or falling prey to the amped-up ugliness that marked Crank and Wanted is its essential guilelessness. Besson and co. want to entertain you, but if you're not entertained, it's no big deal. They're having a good time, and they're not gonna force anything down your throat.

Also: Role Models? Friggin' hilarious. Jane Lynch is some kind of miracle.

Anonymous said...

No worries, Thom! I enjoy a healthy discussion and disagreement just as long as it doesn't lead to personal insults (unfortunately that happens way too often in online chats) and I didn't feel personally insulted by any of your comments about Jason Stathom. Now if you had called me a "walking, barely talking exposed muscle" we may have a serious problem on our hands! Of course this will never happen since unlike Mr. Stathom, I have a weakness for pastries.

On a side note, I find Ewan McGregor and Ralph Fiennes as hot as Jason Stathom, so obviously we have common ground somewhere! In all honesty I just have a "thing" for a lot of British actors that borders on slightly unhealthy obsession occasionally.

And Dennis, I do agree with your assessment of Stathom's acting chops. I think in your last quiz I mentioned that I'd like to see Stathom in more roles besides "ass-kicker" but I do think he's the best action film star we've had in a long time. And I make no apologies for enjoying some explosive action on screen now and then! I'm also glad that you're a fan of The Bank Job since I really thought that was one of the best movies released last year and it didn't get as much attention as it should have. I also have to make a case for Stathom's performance in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. I'm fond of Guy Ritchie's early films and Stathom made an impact on me when I first saw him in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, as well as Snatch.

Hopefully the suscess of his action films will lead people to start giving him more meatier roles.

As for myself, I'm doing okay. 2008 was a rough year and I'll be glad to say goodbye to it, but I'm looking forward to making the most of 2009!

Anonymous said...

Dennis, I just saw The Bank Job and Statham was fabulous in it. I completely agree that he's a pretty good actor. I do like the "Transporter" series. (Although I'm not sure I would have mentioned the Armond support)

Anonymous said...

Transporter 2 remains the best in the series. Instead of a good action romp like T2 or even Crank, we get a sequel that's anchored down by pitiful drama scored to sappy piano music.

If the movie wasn't so somber, and so tied down and limited to its bomb-strapped conceit, the plot holes and outrageous stunts would have been forgivable. Instead, they are clear as day and thus terrible to even digest. More Transporter 2 fun, less Transporter 3 drama next time around please.

Also, pairing an obnoxious bipolar teenage chick with a stone-faced asskicker is never a good idea, unless you can do it right. Unfortunately, the screenwriters could not. Statham's squinty, furrowed brows and gravelly British accent annoyed me for the first time here than anywhere. Normally he's my favorite action hero--a kind of slapstick Bugs Bunny, as Crank proved, minus the wit.

And that ending... please tell me the next movie begins with Statham dumping that girl overboard.

Anonymous said...