Jason Stratham is the James Bond of deliverymen. He's cool, smooth, impeccably dressed, and drives like a mofo. And just as Bond movies have grown into a repetition of formulaic clichés, The Transporter too adheres to standard action movie plot formulas. One dimensional character archetypes, unmotivated behavior, all the way down to the action movie chestnut where the hero is cornered by the villain, gun aimed at his head, when a shot rings out: the hero momentarily thinks he's been shot, but it turns out that the villain was the one shot, by some supporting character we were meant to have thought was dead or gone or forgotten. Even Raiders of the Lost Ark had this cliché, but at least it stuck this moment in an early fight, knowing that the audience wouldn't we gullible enough to fall for it at the final climax.
But if you're going to see an action movie for the plot, then your priorities may be out of order. Action movies are about the action, especially Hong Kong action movies. And this movie, directed by veteran Hong Kong action movie director and fight choreographer Corey Yuen, is definitely in the Hong Kong style. Yuen has directed six Jet Li movies, and choreographed the fighting for all four of Jet Li's US movies, including The One, in which Stratham appeared as Delroy Lindo's partner, chasing Jet Li. Yuen leaves plenty of room in The Transporter for some innovative action set pieces, and his experienced directing turns the competent-but-not-spectacular Stratham into a martial arts dynamo. Under the producing aegis of Luc Besson, Yuen runs roughshod over the French Riviera in car chases through twisty, alley-like European streets as well as open highways. And if nothing else, he keeps up the pace of the movie. If the dramatic aspects of The Transporter are not its strong points, at least Yuen keeps them short.
It's an overused metaphor, but The Transporter is a thrill ride of a movie. A thrill ride in a black 1999 BMW 735 driven by a stoic, unexpectedly buff, fairly anal ex-British-Special-Forces veteran with Bruce Willis' hair who, while not dumb, is certainly no genius. He makes his living delivering stuff, and people. He lives his simple, stoic, fairly anal life by three rules: Rule #1) Do not talk about the Transporter. Rule #2) Do NOT talk about the Transporter. Rule #3) If this is your first delivery, you must... oh wait, wrong movie. No, his three rules are: #1) once the deal is made, it cannot be changed. He clearly favors thorough preparation, which he makes quite clear in the rather amusing opening sequence. #2) No names. He leads a simple life, and while he knows that he is treading outside of the law, he would rather not be bogged down with the knowledge of the specifics. Perhaps he is afraid of being emotionally manipulated, which happens later, of course. #3) Never open the package being delivered. Maybe this is again because he doesn't want to know the specifics of his deeds, but it strikes me as foolish ignorance, and this rule gets him into the kind of trouble that motivates action movies like this one. I mean, Lone Wolf and Cub killed people for money, but even he insisted on knowing all the details. It's just safer that way.
As the movie opens, he adheres closely to his rules. We don't see him kill anyone, and we don't even see him carry a gun. When threatened by a desperate client who puts a pistol to his head, he simply replies, "Who'll drive the car?" since his car is rigged with a keypad, requiring a code number to start it. But when his clients murder one of their own, we don't see him flinch either. He knows he's in a dangerous business. When a later trip is interrupted by a couple of cops, he pounds them senseless and tosses them into the trunk. It's never clear what he intends to do with them, and maybe he doesn't know himself. But he does appear to abide by a fourth, unspoken rule: If someone is a prisoner in your trunk, buy them a drink.
So it's really a combination of rule 3 and 4 that cause him the problems. He his hired to transport a bag to the bad guy, the scowling villain so ruthlessly evil that he even bears the same, glowering expression in his driver's license photo, as we see later. When the Transporter stops to fix a flat tire (why wouldn't someone in his business use run-flat tires?) he notices muffled squirming from the bag. He stops for lunch, and buys the bag a drink. (Unspoken Rule #4.) The bag contains Jackie Chan's Gorgeous co-star Shu Qi (or Hsu Chi, or Xu Qi). She needs to pee, so he lets her. He stops by the side of the road, and ties a rope very loosely around her neck, letting her scamper off into the woods on a leash. It comes as a surprise only to him (certainly not to the audience) when his moronic plan backfires and she runs off. But he does manage to chase her down.
When he delivers her to the evil, mean, bad guy, he pays the Transporter to make another delivery, a briefcase. Of course, he doesn't open it, and doesn't ask questions. And again, it comes as no surprise to us when his car explodes thanks to the bomb in the briefcase. I tell ya, delivery guys get no respect. So he goes back to the bad guy's house, breaks in, and kicks every ass on the premises. Bad guy isn't there, of course, so he LEAVES. He doesn't wait for the bad guy to get home. He doesn't try to track down where the bad guy is. He's the good guy, so he didn't kill everyone there, so there are witnesses. So even if the bad guy thought he killed the Transporter, he'll know better once he talks to his surviving lackey. Where does the Transporter go? Well, he just goes home.
Let me tell you, if someone had tried to kill me, I might assume that they would keep trying to kill me once they found out I was alive. And I might even guess that they'd want to kill me bad enough to come to my home. Unless they're, like, really lazy killers who never leave the house. So I would probably be worried about them tracking me down where I live and trying to kill me there. Certainly worried enough that my next step would NOT be to go home and get a good night's rest. Now, the value of a good night's rest can not be underestimated. Studies have shown time and again that both mental and physical acuity are enhanced by sufficient rest. But on the other hand, they are also enhanced by not having 50,000 bullets and a couple of missiles shot up one's ass. No, I would opt for a hotel or some other safe house. Especially if I found that, hidden in the car I stole to get away from the bad guy's house was Shu Qi, trying to escape her captor.
Adding another flavor to the nigh-incomprehensible melange of Stratham's English accent, Shu Qi's thick Chinese accent, and bad guy Matt Schulze's American accent is heavily-accented Frenchman François Berléand as the Columbo-like detective who seems to know more about the Transporter's criminal business than he lets on, but in the end helps him go after the bad guys. It's never clear if they're really friends or what, but at least it doesn't seem as out of place as when, immediately after escaping a death trap, Shu Qi takes off her clothes and practically announces that they will have sex now. (It's a PG-13 movie, so she's still in underwear, you pervert.) But unmotivated actions are par for the course.
Anyway, you're not here for the accents, or the plot. You're here for the action, and The Transporter has plenty of it, done well by people who know how to do it. This isn't a Hollywood action movie where brief, four-minute bursts of action punctuate some sort of hoped-for dramatic tension. Hong Kong action movie makers know that the action is the meat of the action movie, and the other stuff is just fat and trimmings. You don't have a movie about a delivery driver without some car chases, and the ones in the beginning of The Transporter are like one of those BMW films (www.bmwfilms.com), but bigger. The European setting will bring to mind the now-classic car chase of Ronin, but Hong Kong movies live in a slightly more fantastic universe where naturalism is best left to documentaries. The pacing isn't as smooth, favoring a more staccato rhythm.
And when it comes to the fighting, Yuen plays faultlessly to Stratham's strengths while being innovative with some unusual settings. Stratham is trying to tail a convoy of bad guys to their destination by riding atop their 18-wheeler. But when the driver tries to scrape him off, our hero has to leap off, to the roof of a bus on a completely different road. The bus takes him to the main bus hangar, where suddenly an army of bad guys appear. Apparently, they are now more interested in killing him than they are in guarding their convoy. Stratham fights them in the narrow spaces between buses, inside the cramped confines of a bus, and finally in the middle of the hangar. He is now shirtless, though this works to his advantage when he dumps a barrel of motor oil all over the floor and himself. The bad guys are now unable to get a grip on his greasy body, and when he gets a hold of a pair of cleat-like bike pedals (the kind with toe clips), he is the only one able to stand and fight. Clever, fun stuff.
Between this guy and Vin Diesel, I don't know what it is about balding, muscular, action heroes this year. Maybe testosterone supplements are the rage now. They enhance muscle and body hair growth while accelerating male pattern baldness. Of course, they also lead to breast development and lactation, as the body increases estrogen output to balance out the testosterone. But maybe the bitch tits make your pecs look bigger. Who knows?
Bottom line: if you're in the mood for a mindless action movie, then The Transporter fulfills both criteria, and does it well. I thought the movie was fun, and the action was good. The rest is just filler while they round up some more bad guys to beat up.
See that? A whole Jeffreview about The Transporter, and not one single Star Trek joke.
© 2003 Jeffrey P. Hui