Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Transporter (2002)

Frank Martin (Jason Statham) spends his post-military retirement living at the Cote D'Azur. Because retirement isn't cheap - and because he clearly likes excitement - Frank works transporting illegal goods and people in his souped-up car through France. Because he likes order, or is a functional neurotic, Frank has some rigid, unbendable rules to protect himself from knowing too much about the things he transports, chief among them "never open the package".

One day, he does open one, and finds a young woman (house favourite Shu Qi) inside. He's professional (or bastard) enough to still deliver her without questions asked and pretend he didn't open the package, but the guy he's working for (Matt Schulze) likes to make sure of things, and so attempts to blow Frank and his car up. The latter doesn't survive, while the former becomes royally pissed off. While breaking some henchmen legs and stealing a replacement car belonging to his former client, Frank accidentally re-kidnaps his former package.

Lei, as she is called, does not take long to charm and lie herself into Frank's trust (some actual romance is involved too), for she fastly identifies him at the big softie he is at heart, and could really use her own personal do-gooder right now - not just for protection but because a whole lot of enslaved illegal immigrants could really use some rescuing.

I am, as I have made clear a few times already, not the biggest fan of the particular style of action movie Luc Besson's Europa Corp. trades in, because all too often, what is probably meant to be light and silly ends up feeling stupid and just lazily written to me.

So by all rights, I should find Louis Leterrier's - with action direction by Corey Yuen - The Transporter just as off-putting as I do most other EC movies, particularly since the film also trades in travel ad pretty (and therefore boring) landscape photography, product placement for German car manufacturers, and the kind of slick direction that always signals a lack of character and personality to me.

As a matter of fact, though, I do enjoy The Transporter immensely. For once, I do find the humour in a Besson-written Euro action movie actually funny instead of annoying, the silliness of some of the action scenes perfectly sensible, and don't want to strangle anyone for the sin of too lazy plotting. Sure, the script isn't a brilliant intellectual effort, but it uses shortcuts only to get to the more interesting parts faster and not to smugly assert its own superiority over things like logic or basic characterisation. We're of course still in the realm of action movie short hand and cliché characters here, but those are delivered with relish and conviction. I wouldn't ask for more from this kind of film.

Unusually for an action movie - even one as consciously light in tone and relatively non-lethal in its violence as this one - Statham (whom I will never love but who is much better at basic acting than most action movie specialists) and Shu Qi (who can be a serious actress if a film lets her yet also can just do "adorable" with frightening ease as is the case here) have actual chemistry between each other that makes the little romance bits in the film rather pleasant and charming (it's that word again). Turns out some charm goes well with car chases and martial arts-y fights.

The action is pretty good too, going from cheap yet exciting car chases to martial arts fights that even (not a big surprise given Yuen's family background as a member of an important family of martial arts choreographers) dare become silly like a new wave kung fu movie. Statham's a bit on the slow side in the martial arts scenes for my taste, but I do appreciate the film not overusing stunt doubles and not trying to hide the humanity of its star behind rapid editing. That's something The Transporter's sequels will take care of.

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