Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen
Directed by Corey Yuen and Louis Leterrier
Former army pilot Frank Martin (a younger, slightly leaner looking Jason Statham), lives in a quite little southern French town in a lovely villa, passing his days away by…driving wild escape or delivery routes to whomever is willing to pay for his excellent services, usually people circumventing the law in some capacity. Frank abides by a series of strict, self-ordained rules that are never to be broken, among them being that the client can never change a deal. As a group of four hooded robbers enter his car, one of them learns the severity of the rule rather rudely when Frank reminds them that originally there was supposed to be only three of them…After a death defying chase against local police, Frank is called upon for a new contract, this time transporting a lone, large sized bag to one slimy looking rich American, Darren Bettencourt (Matt Schulze). Alas, when Frank notices that the package is shaking, he breaks his own rule and finds that he is carrying a beautiful kidnap victim, Lai Kwai (Shu Qi). Now, on the run from Darren’s legion and gangster killers and French Inspector Tarconi (François Berléand), with whom he has comical a love-hate relationship, Frank and Lai are on the run for their lives!
It is somewhat amazing to think that in 2015, a fourth Transporter film (The Transporter Refueled) was released in theatres. Whether that is a testament to the franchise’s longevity or the studios desperation that make whatever money they can out of a series of films that admittedly has its fanbase but is mostly just a drop in the ocean compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universes and James Bonds of the movie world is another debate altogether. For what it is worth, it is interesting to go back and revisit the first entry and appreciate the way in which, like a crescendo of zaniness, it begins with a modest attempt of taking place in what sort of resembles the real world, only to engage in increasingly ludicrous if still terribly amusing antics by its climax. Really, the early scenes sport only the faintest semblance of transpiring in any grounded reality, mostly because another film of the same year, The Bourne Identity, also featured a pretty fantastical car chase as well, with the latter film nevertheless portraying itself as a gritty espionage thriller.
In truth, Louis Leterrier and Corey Yuen’s The Transporter is a colourful, fast paced, action movie that knows exactly what territory it is dipping its toes into. The directors make no qualms about the silliness of the adventure they have to offer viewers, relishing in over-the-top stunts that impress and produce laughter in equal measure. That is, in a nutshell, what makes this original film so entertaining, the fact that it takes its stunt work seriously, minimizing its reliance on computer generated enhancements (although there are a couple instances that employ cg. No, they do not look very good), all the while embracing the comedy inherent in many of the set-ups. Dramatic beats during which Frank and Lai contend with the fact that a shipment of Chinese slaves is soon arriving exist to produce an excuse for the action but are never dwelt on for long. Why, when there is so much fun to be had with Frank Martin literally oiling himself up in order to fend off a hoard of ninja trained thugs at a bus garage, is each villain seeing his grasp on Frank’s arms or legs slipping away before receiving a roundhouse kick to the face?
It is reassuring to witness filmmakers owning up to the ridicule on display while investing considerable time and effort into making the action as impressive as possible. Had it been one without the other, The Transporter would not have been the moderate success it is considered today, playing as nothing more than a run of the mill gritty action flick or a mere joke. Who can forget the great moment when a quartet of gangsters hears the doorbell ringing, prompting one of them to see through the eyeglass to see who the visitor is, only to be surprised by Frank running and jump kicking towards the door! Transporter evolves from the more grounded action beats like that to the utterly ridiculous climax in which Frank drops down by parachute onto a speeding container truck, followed by a series of jumps, twists and twirls in and around said truck. Rather than exhaust the viewer, the marathon of martial arts mayhem is consistently energetic and entertaining in a way reminiscent of old school slapstick humour.
Not nearly as startling yet important nonetheless are the performances the directors get out of the cast. Not that anybody is delivering ground-breaking work, but the movie does play to each cast member’s strengths, starting, of course, with Jason Statham. Statham has been playing the terse but deadly anti-hero for so long, it was only a matter of time before someone with a strong comedic sense like Paul Feig cast him in a film like Spy which actually makes fun of that very archetype. Although he had played solid roles in a few films before Transporter, this is the film that shined the spotlight on his movie persona, the one that defined him in many ways. He plays the part of Frank Martin with what can only be described as classy grit, or sophisticated brutality. There is something smooth and thus endearing about Statham despite him being playing the quiet, brooding type. Leading Lady Shu Qi is not given as much to do as far as stunt work is concerned, but Leterrier and Yuen refuse to hang her out to dry however. She is actually rather charming and given some decently funny lines, therefore becoming something of a foil for Frank who wants to be left alone. Lastly, François Berléand provides some of the dialogue driven comic relief as the French inspector hoping to finally catch Frank in the act all the while showing quiet admiration for the man’s gusto and skills.
Taking full advantage of the southern French Riviera landscape, which is impossible to make look ugly on film, The Transporter looks great, boasting much more controlled cinematography and editing than is seen in so many action-oriented adventures in recent years. It takes seriously what needs to be taken seriously, namely the stunt work, and takes an easy, breezy approach with almost everything else, yet never to the extent that character relations become completely uninteresting. They actually end up becoming rather charming. Granted, The Transporter does not aim for very high-minded artistic goals, but the Leterrier-Yuen combo delivers the goods. So does Jason Statham, but then again, he is the transporter after all.
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