George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a visionary action movie of truly uncommon grace, intelligence and detail-oriented craftsmanship. Camille Delamarre’s “The Transporter Refueled” is absolutely none of those things, and yet the two films share an unlikely number of similarities. Both are fourth installments in franchises that scarcely seemed able to support a third; both feature recast, taciturn leads who must safeguard four scantily clad women on a dangerous road trip; and both express single-minded devotion — in their own radically different fashions — to stripping the action movie of its pretensions and excess fat. The rare stupid genre film that’s at least somewhat aware of its own transcendent stupidity, yet not aware enough to wink at it or try to explain it away, “The Transporter Refueled” will likely rack up modest figures over a sleepy Labor Day weekend, but those who show up will find one of the most enjoyable bad movies of the year.
With longtime star Jason Statham sitting this one out, Ed Skrein (“Game of Thrones”) takes on the role of Frank Martin, the fastest, fightingest Uber driver in Europe. Attempting to make up in pursed-lipped handsomeness what he lacks in charisma and hulking machismo, Skrein isn’t exactly a like-for-like replacement. Fortunately, Frank is ultimately a passenger on this particular ride, with the real attractions being the crashes, the physics-defying brawls, and the nonstop, almost endearingly shameless product placements, with Evian, American Express and especially Audi getting as much screentime as the film’s nominal star.
Also, photocopying several pages from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” the film joins Frank with his vinegary father, Frank Sr. (Ray Stevenson), a self-professed salesman who has not-so-secretly just retired from espionage work. (And judging by the frequency with which he seems to get kidnapped, not a moment too soon.)
Father and son are enjoying some R&R in Monaco when Frank gets a new client for his clandestine courier service: a femme fatale named Anna (Loan Chabanol). When Frank shows up for his scheduled pickup outside a bank, Anna and her two identically dressed, identically blonde-wigged compatriots (Gabriella Wright, Wenxia Yu) emerge, holding Frank at gunpoint when he tries to call off the job. In the midst of a subsequent city-wide chase, Frank soon learns that the girls have a fourth co-conspirator (Tatiana Pajkovic) who is holding his father captive, and will kill him unless Frank guides them through a series of follow-up heists over the next several hours.
Modeling themselves after the Three Musketeers (they even keep a library copy of Dumas’ book conspicuously lying around their hideout, in case their hostages should miss the homage) the girls turn out to be former child sex slaves of Monaco’s reigning Russian pimp (Radivoje Bukvic), and their string of robberies are part of an elaborate plot to take revenge on him and his henchmen (which include Lenn Kudrjawizki and Yuri Kolokolnikov, the latter looking uncannily like Dutch soccer star Wesley Sneijder inflated far beyond his recommended psi).
Human trafficking is, of course, a monstrously unpleasant and tragic subject. Does “The Transporter Refueled” treat it with the sensitivity and gravity it deserves? Oh heavens no, and the loving closeups of these statuesque women in varying states of undress take on a considerable contextual ickiness. The film does try to give the briefest of lip service to the horrors of the sex trade, though coming from Frank Sr. mere minutes after he’s been roused from a threesome with two of the epidemic’s former victims, it displays a nearly comic degree of tone-deafness when it does. (But to be fair, that’s more lip service than “Skyfall” bothered to grant it.)
That aside, “The Transporter Refueled” comes up strong where it counts, with frequent bursts of ludicrously implausible yet coherently directed mayhem. Though a couple of the chase sequences can devolve into a blur of quick cuts, Delamarre displays an assured hand with some of the film’s more inventive setpieces, especially a Hong Kong-worthy fistfight amid a slew of filing cabinets, and an escape through an airport that plays like the best mission the “Grand Theft Auto” series never scripted. The pic even provides one weirdly indelible image, as the Three Musketeers tiptoe through a neon-lit pile of unconscious dancers in a disco they’ve ventilated with sleeping gas.
Working with a narcotically bright color palette from cinematographer Christophe Collette, former editor Delamarre has generally good instincts about when to cut and when to linger slightly longer than usual — though it’s indicative of the pic’s pacing that, when Frank gives a 10-second ultimatum in an early scene, it simply edits out numbers six through one.
Likewise, the film rarely pauses for anything resembling character building or repartee, but when it does, the results are screamingly hysterical. In one standout moment, the villain’s inexplicably loyal favored-girl/henchwoman (Noemie Lenoir) watches security camera footage of the Three Musketeers in matching wigs and dresses, and remarks with an emotionless monotone: “They look exactly the same. You cannot tell them apart.” Shortly thereafter, watching footage of the girls in slightly different outfits: “They are the same girls … different clothes.” A smarter film would have tried to play that line for laughs and gotten nowhere; “The Transporter Refueled” is just dumb enough to make it funny.