The Transporter is a lot like a live action version of Riding Bean. What, you've never seen that anime?
Okay, let me try again. Imagine the sad restraint of Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense. Then add the martial arts skills of Jet Li in Romeo Must Die and the driving skills of Robert DeNiro in Ronin. Mix well. Voila! You have The Transporter, a martial arts action flick with a bald Special Forces guy (Frank Martin, played by Jason Statham) in the lead.
The Transporter is one of those hidden gems amongst action films. I stumbled upon it through Netflix. When I told my family to watch it, they instantly became fans. It's one of the first DVDs I bought after renting it (the second being Donnie Darko).
The plot is almost ancillary to the point of the movie, which is to watch Frank drive real fast, kick butt and take names. The attractive wife (Audrey Billings, played by Amber Valletta) of a politician with an anti-drug agenda (Matthew Modine), hires Frank to shepherd her son (Jack Billing, played by cute-as-a-button Hunter Clary) to and from school. An Italian terrorist known only as Gianni (Alessandro Gassman, chewing up the scenery) and his psycho gun-toting girlfriend Lola (Kate Nauta) kidnap the boy. But of course, there's a twist as to why they want the boy in the first place…
There are a few attributes that distinguish The Transporter from the genre. For one, Frank is a cool, collected character. He lives by rules, always arriving on time and impeccably dressed in a black suit, black tie, leather driving gloves, and white shirt. If he were merely a wheelman for other lead protagonists, that would be enough, but Frank has much more going for him. He's a martial arts monkey, capable of climbing, jumping, kicking, and wielding just about anything he can get his hands on. Frank also has a heart of gold, for young women and kids.
Transporter 2 plays on all these foils to kick off the film. Frank creates a guessing game for Jack each time he picks him up from school. Isn't he sweet? The ladies love Frank: Audrey can barely keep her hands off of him. But Frank's a good and respectful kind of guy, so he rejects her advances. What a guy!
Once Jack is in danger, the gloves are off. Frank sets out to beat the living tar out of the bad guys, and he does it despite the fact that guns are frequently pointed at his head. It's all action, all the time.
Unfortunately, the movie frequently overreaches itself. Frank does some utterly ridiculous things, like launching his car over a ramp in order to scrape a bomb off with a hanging crane. As opposed to say, just reaching under the car to pry the bomb off. Frank leaps down to the ground thirty feet without a scratch, smashes through a wall (twice, once with his car and once with his body), and none of it seems to be more than an inconvenience. At one point, one of the characters asks, "Are you trying to be some kind of superhero?" Thanks to Louis Leterrier's over-the-top filmmaking…why yes, yes he is.
The other problem is that all these superheroics require a lot of CGI and the artists assigned to the movie were just not up to the task. Everything looks fake: the exploding helicopter, the sinking plane--whenever an effect is called for, a big pink sign screaming, "THIS IS CGI" practically accompanies the shot.
As an Italian-American, it's refreshing to see a bad guy who isn't a mobster. As a particularly loathsome piece of Eurotrash, Gianni comes up with an insane plan at the end that makes no sense except to set up a peculiar requirement: now Frank must keep the bad guy alive if he is to save the boy and his family.
The martial arts are amazing, as expected. Fans of the first movie will notice that Frank seems to be in a bit of a rut, as he fights guys with axes (yet again). And fans of Jet Li will be surprised to see Frank perform almost the exact same martial arts routine with a fire hose as Jet in Romeo Must Die. The connection: Corey Yuen, who obviously is hoping you didn't see both films. I'm not kidding, it's almost an exact shot-for-shot take of Romeo Must Die.
That said, Gianni also turns out to be a wuss. After watching what can only be described as Matrix-style Kendo training, Gianni provides meager resistance to Frank, battles in spinning Lear jets not withstanding. Why set up the bad guy to be so dangerous when he can be socked in the head a couple of times? Heck, Lola was more dangerous.
Throughout, Tarconi (Francois Berleand, reprising his role as befuddled French detective) helps Frank get the information he needs out of the U.S. government's databases and provides a good dose of humor along the way. The entire film has tongue firmly in cheek, so it's difficult to be too harsh on a movie that doesn't take itself that seriously.
All in all, Transporter 2 is a welcome entry in an otherwise crowded genre, with European sensibilities and style. Forget XXX, the Transporter is my candidate for the James Bond of the 21st century.