“The Transporter” reps a feature-length audition for Brit hunk Jason Statham to join the wide-open ranks of young future action stars. But while the ensemble player who gained notice in Guy Ritchie’s “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” has the bod, the moves and a passing resemblance to Bruce Willis in his favor, he’s unlikely to become a household name on the basis of his first starring vehicle, so second-hand and disposable is it in every respect. The imprimateur of coproducer-coscreenwriter Luc Besson will take this French-lensed actioner further internationally than it would travel on its own merits, but this is a quick in-and-outer theatrically in the U.S.
Directed by Hong Kong martial arts vet Cory Yuen, with “intimate” scenes, such as they are, handled by “artistic director” Louis Leterrier, a former assistant director to Besson, pacey pic boasts a script, penned by Besson with his “The Fifth Element” collaborator Robert Mark Kamen, that has the feel of something dashed off over a long beach lunch. The good guy is the strong silent type who lets his actions speak for him, the baddies are all glowering goons, and the damsel in distress is able to step up when the going gets tough.
In order to keep psychology and acting demands minimal, Statham’s title character Frank Martin, an ex-Special Forces op, is a mercenary BMW-driving delivery man entirely defined by the three rules of his trade: Never change the deal; no names; never look in the package. That he’s serious about his code of conduct is amply illustrated by the opening sequence, in which he refuses to transport four bank robbers rather than the agreed-upon three, forcing the ringleader to whack one of his accomplices on the spot.
Kick-off chase sequence, which cavalierly intercuts between locations in Nice and Cannes and smothers potential tension by repeatedly jump-cutting away from inconvenient circumstances, is so over the top it suggests a semi-farcical, tongue-in-cheek approach is in store. But a consistent tone proves beyond the means of the multinational filmmakers, who, when in doubt, resort to standard-issue tough-guy stuff marked by attempts at a fresh spin that seem more desperate than inspired.
Frank gets into trouble on a job when he breaks Rule No. 3 by unzipping a bag that obviously contains something alive. Although the illicit cargo, a stunning Taiwanese woman named Lai (Shu Qi, star of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Millenium Mambo”), briefly escapes, Frank packs her up again and delivers the bag to its recipient, an eminently evil Yank with the moniker Wall Street (Matt Schulze).
Frank’s judgment comes into question once again when he accepts a briefcase from Wall Street that, to anyone who’s ever seen any movies in this vein, obviously has a bomb in it. Surviving this, Frank retreats to his seaside Cote d’Azur villa, a magnificent fort-like edifice that would cost millions but that he can unaccountably afford on his army pension. No doubt this is the reason he comes under some suspicion from local detective Tarconi (Francois Berleand) even before Wall Street’s thugs brazenly attack the place with a barrage of shoulder-launched missiles.
From here on, yarn consists of skirmishes between the two sides, mixing in Lai’s odious dad (Ric Young), who with Wall Street is smuggling Asians into France in huge shipping containers. Among action scenes that stress martial arts but sometimes add weapons into the mix (and, in classic fashion, usually feature the hero single-handedly besting numerous adversaries), most ridiculous is one in which the combatants do battle while slipping and sliding across a warehouse floor smeared with oil. Least original is a car-and-truck pursuit that borrows far too liberally from “The Road Warrior.” Unintended laughs in the climactic confrontation involving Frank, Lai and latter’s pa pushes pic to risible levels at the finish line.
Although the former Olympic diver handles himself well physically, it’s not evident here what additional qualities Statham might possess that would cause him to prevail over any number of other candidates for action stardom. Coached in English during the shoot for her Western film debut, the lovely Shu registers with an effervescent personality, while other turns are by-the-numbers.
Splendidly rugged settings in the Alpes Maritimes are bathed in a warm glow by lenser Pierre Morel, and special effects and stunt work are up to snuff.