Friday, November 28, 2008

Transporter 3: Revved up

Transporter 3 (2008) • View trailer for Transporter 3
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and brief drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.28.08
Buy DVD: Transporter 3 • Buy Blu-Ray: Transporter 3 [Blu-ray]

When it comes to cinematic guilty pleasures, few action stars deliver better than Jason Statham and his Transporter series.

The first film, released in 2002, had a lot to do with turning Statham into a household name; credit goes both to the actor and co-writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen. The plots often don't make much sense, but as Besson — also a stylish action director, on other projects such as La Femme Nikita and The Professional — has demonstrated time and again, even silly storylines can be entertaining, if presented with enough panache.
Hoping to catch a couple of gun-toting thugs by surprise as they search a train,
a concealed Frank Martin (Jason Statham, left) spots a dangling motorcycle
helmet and deftly kicks it straight toward their heads ... merely one of countless
martial-arts stunts employed by the always engaging action star of this flick.

Flash-forward to the present day, at which point the impressively buff Statham has become England's answer to Jackie Chan in his prime: a martial-arts force of nature whose tightly choreographed exploits often involve furniture, clothing, stray household objects and anything else that can be snatched, smacked or kicked into an opponent's groin.

Transporter 3 has several choice fight scenes that gleefully adhere to this pattern, while also indulging every possible excuse to strip Statham to the waist. After all, with a bod like his, why be modest?

All the elements are in place as this film begins, with Statham's Frank Martin — on a break in between making his "high-risk deliveries" — enjoying some unexpectedly peaceful down time with his best (only?) friend, police inspector Tarconi (François Berléand). It can't last, of course; as Tarconi is summoned to an unusual crime scene, Frank heads home for a quiet evening.

Too bad a car smashes through the outer wall and hurtles into his living room.

The vehicle contains a badly wounded driver and a stunningly attractive young woman named Valentina (Natalya Rudakova); both wear rather odd-looking bracelets. Frank processes the latter bit of information too slowly; when ambulance attendants haul the injured man a specific distant from his vehicle, the bracelet explodes and kills everybody within range.

One crack on the head later, Frank wakes up to find himself wearing an identical bracelet. He's given an unusual assignment by his new "client," an unctuous fellow named Johnson (Robert Knepper): Drive the same young woman to a series of stops in Marseilles, Stuttgart, Budapest and Odessa, each time pausing long enough for additional instructions.

And if Frank ever moves too far away from his car, he'll meet the same fate that befell the previous driver.

With no choice in the matter, Frank reluctantly agrees.

We learn, before our hero does, that Valentina is the daughter of Leonid Vasilev (Jeroen Krabbé), head of the Environmental Protection Agency for the Ukraine; she has been kidnapped as a means of forcing her father to sign a contract with corporate scum seeking a legal means of dumping toxic waste.

Can Frank somehow remove the bracelet, save Valentina, prevent her father from being pressured into compromising his integrity, and deliver some serious whup-ass on Johnson and his scores of goons?

C'mon; if you have to ask, you haven't been paying attention.

Director Olivier Megaton maintains a capable hand during the stylish action sequences, and none is better than Frank's revved-up foot and bicycle pursuit of his car, temporarily snatched by somebody else, as he scrambles to remain within the specified distance. It's as crazed a sequence as anything Statham did in his hilariously over-the-top Crank, but you can't help admiring the audacity of the stunts themselves, however unlikely the events that prompt them.

On the other hand, Rudakova is little more than a pretty face ... and a total liability every time she delivers another clumsy line of dialogue. As the story goes, Besson — also one of this film's producers — spotted the transplanted Russian, then working as a hairdresser in New York, and suggested that she try acting lessons. (I'd say they didn't take.) He then hired her for this film.

She cuts a striking figure, no doubt about it, with all those freckles set off by the brilliant lip gloss and inky-black eye shadow. But one grows tired of the many, many times Megaton cuts to an extreme close-up of her face, for no apparent reason. And the script can't really decide what to do with Valentina's character; her rebellious attitude is wholly unconvincing, and a sequence where she orders Frank to strip — in exchange for getting his keys back — is simply embarrassing, both for Statham and for us viewers.

Bear in mind, this film's basic premise makes no sense either; I can't think of any reason why Johnson would want Valentina driven hither and yon, rather than simply keeping her in some dark basement until her father capitulates. But at least this plot contrivance forces Statham to engage in all sorts of crazed car chases, which is why we're watching in the first place.

Rudakova, however, is annoying to no good purpose.

The tight-lipped Statham still has one of the best stink-eye stares in the business, and he has the physical presence to back up his face-offs with, oh, a dozen or so nameless goons. They all attack individually, of course; the form demands as much, and it's fun to watch them fly across the room one by one. Martial-arts choreographer Cory Yuen is a master of such scenes, and editors Camille Delamarre and Carlo Rizzo keep the pace lively.

The quietly droll Berléand brings these proceedings back to the real world every so often, as Tarconi methodically pursues a less flamboyant line of investigation. In truth, it would have been far nicer to spend more time with Berléand, and keep Rudakova's Valentina locked up in the trunk, out of sight.

Megaton is rather obsessed with the Mickey Mouse visual tics favored by too many young directors these days; the flashbulb-style explosions of white light that separate smash-cut scene changes are very irritating. Such reflexive gimmickry is the first refuge of filmmakers who don't trust their scripts or actors, and I'd have expected Besson — in his capacity as producer — to rein in such nonsense.

The fans who have faithfully followed Statham's career won't care, of course; they'll only want to see their favorite action star do what he does best. And in that respect, Transporter 3 delivers.

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