Thursday, December 04, 2008

Review - Transporter 3

As James Bond leaves behind the gadgets and quips to follow Jason Bourne down the path of gritty, no-frills realism, it's nice to have Frank Martin around to prove there's still more than one way to make an action movie. Authenticity may be the watchword for most modern action heroes, but for the Luc Besson-produced Transporter series – in which Jason Statham's Frank is the star – that word comes a long way down the list of priorities. Spectacle and Adrenalin are the key ingredients in these films, and the plot is generally treated as an annoying little inconvenience, which is only marking time until the next stunt or set-piece crashes into view. The whole package is given Besson's usual glossy sheen, and while it's hard to deny the Transporter films are little more than hollow and nonsensical cases of style over substance, it's just as hard to deny they're damn good fun.

For the uninitiated, here's a quick recap. Frank Martin is the transporter; a cool and unflappable ex-special forces operative who will guarantee delivery of anything, anywhere, anytime. He lives his life by a series of strict rules – never open the package, never use names, always work alone etc. – but throughout the course of his adventures, he usually breaks most of these at some point ("Why is everyone so interested in my rules?" he growls in this film when that issue is raised). His only colleague is friendly gendarme Tarconi (François Berléand), and at the start of Transporter 3 the pair are enjoying a spot of fishing off the coast of Marseilles, with Frank contemplating the nice, quiet retirement that lies ahead of him. His retirement is short-lived, though, and when the plot suddenly crashes into his living room he is soon forced to get back into the delivery service against his will, transporting an irritating Ukrainian teenager (newcomer Natalya Rudakova: a star is not born) from France to Budapest in his ever-reliable Audi.

The twist here is that the villain of the piece (Robert Knepper who cackles and sneers effectively), has fitted both Frank and Valentina with bracelets that will blow them to smithereens if they move more than 75 feet away from the car. It's the kind of simple conceit that worked for films like Speed (or Statham's own blatant Speed knock-off Crank), and if Transporter 3 doesn't quite exploit this gimmick as it might have done, it does add a different texture to some of the best sequences, like Frank pursuing his stolen car on foot and bicycle while trying to stay within the allotted distance. Scenes like that are the Transporter films' raison d'être; cheerfully ludicrous, inventively staged, and shot with an exhilarating kinetic charge. Taking on directing duties for this film is a man named Olivier Megaton (no, really!), who handles the audacious set-pieces skilfully, maintain ing clarity and generating real excitement through the various chase sequences. Even better is the hand-to-hand combat, with Frank often taking on multiple enemies at once, and each of these bouts benefit from Corey Yuen's choreography and some unexpected, amusing touches, including one particularly memorable incident wherein Frank removes his jacket, tie and shirt and uses them as weapons. Statham is in his element here – dressed to kill.

Jason Statham may not be a great actor, but the Transporter films don't need a great actor, they need a presence, and that's what he provides. Sleek, athletic and blessed with a deadpan delivery, he's a perfect fit for this kind of straight-ahead action hero role. The character of Frank Martin is cool and uncomplicated, and the last thing he needs is any kind of emotional depth, which is perhaps why the romantic angle that has been shoehorned gracelessly into Transporter 3 feels so misguided. After initially spurning Valentina's request to "feel the sex" ("You are the gay!", she exclaims when he refuses), the couple's relationship is eventually developed through no less than four separate cringeworthy discussions about food. Their tiresome romantic interlude culminates with Valentina forcing Frank to perform a hilariously embarrassing striptease on the edge of a cliff. Scenes like this are funny, sure, but they do tend to drag on the picture and leave the audience impatiently fidgeting in anticipation of the next action highlight.

As a result, Transporter 3 is a little clumsier and more disjointed than its predecessors, but for the most part it succeeds admirably within the boundaries of its own modest ambitions. The climax battle between Frank's Audi and a train brings the picture to an exceedingly entertaining close, and that's just one of the many sequences which offers more genuine fun that the retooled Bond could provide in Quantum of Solace. The Transporter films have carved out a nice little niche for themselves by providing explosive, over-the-top action in an era when so many of films in this genre are striving for something real. Transporter 3 just wants to dazzle the eyes and quicken the pulse, and Frank Martin has delivered the goods once again.