I'm usually wary of action films, because too often the price you pay for satisfying action is a skimpy plot and cardboard characters. Action filmmakers also tend to embrace logic so tentatively that the final product can seem more like fantasy. But "The Transporter" was a pleasant surprise. Though the plot is still almost as slight as Kate Moss on a diet, the characters are interesting and the action seems totally believable.
Listen to the commentary track and you'll learn why. It turns out that three-fourths of the production was shot without sets on the French Riviera, and all but two scenes were real, handled either by a bulked-up Jason Statham ("The Italian Job") or stuntmen. The only scenes to use CGI were ones where The Transporter has to leap from an airplane and a bad guy is thrown out the window of a speeding truck. Even the high-speed auto chase through the biggest and most famous boulevard in Cannes was real, with hundreds of spotters stationed along the way to make sure that unsuspecting passers-by didn't walk in front of the speeding cars. Statham did most of his own driving, just as he handled almost all of his own martial arts stunts.
But perhaps the biggest appeal of "The Transporter" is its merger of East and West. There's plenty of martial arts displays, with some nifty scenes involving a t-shirt used as a weapon and another that has all of the participants slipping and sliding in barrels of oil on a bus depot concrete floor (again, shot in a real depot). But "The Transporter" also has a James Bond feel to it. Or rather, what a Bond film would be like if a sophisticated, ex-British special forces commando went into petty crime instead of government spying.
Frank Martin (Statham) is a suave and particular man who makes a living by transporting things for a hefty price. He's precise, and needs to know exact details, like the weight of his passengers and cargo, and he has a number of rules, mainly "no names" and "don't look inside the package." He may be a bad guy technically, but you know Frank Martin is a moral cut above the low-lifes he deals with on a daily basis, and its not just because he dresses better.
An opening scene even conjures up images of a young Sean Connery. Martin pulls up to a bank and waits. He flicks hi-tech switches on his black BMW and finally presses a button so the license plates revolve to a different number. As four extremely agitated robbers with masks emerge and begin screaming "Drive, drive!" The Transporter calmly informs them that the deal was for three passengers, not four. Even with a gun pressed to his head and the sound of police sirens fast approaching, he calmly sits behind the wheel, explaining his position . . . until the leader of the group, in the front seat, turns his pistol on one the men in the backseat and they dump the body onto the street. Then, with a touch of Bond-like tongue-in-cheek humor, Martin tells the men to put on their seat belts. More Bond-style humor comes near the end of the ride when one of the men is about to throw up. "If you don't mind, I just conditioned the leather back there," Martin says, lowering the man's window so he can upchuck outside.
But life turns complicated when Martin breaks one of his own rules and looks inside his next package. It turns out that he's been asked to transport human cargo: a young Asian woman whom we learn is named Lai (engagingly played by Shu Qi). Forget Patty Hearst syndrome. When the two of them are on-screen together, a certain chemistry between them may not exactly remind you of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, but there's certainly a lot more going on than typically happened between Bond and his "girls." Same, actually, with Martin and an affable, Columbo-style police inspector named Tarconi (Francois Berleand). There's a warmth on-camera that betrays not just respect that the two men have for each other, but a noticeable fondness as well.
When the people who hired Martin plant explosives on his car to get rid of him after he's done his job, The Transporter takes it personally. From that point, the film turns into a chase or be chased set of circumstances involving smuggled Chinese and some very bad people (Matt Schulze, Ric Young, Doug Rand, Didier Saint Mellin) who keep trying to kill them. If you haven't seen Statham since his cult debut, "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels" (1998), he's sure gotten buff since then. But added to all that cool suaveness, it only makes this good guy at heart all the more appealing. Clothes may make the man, as they do in this film, but the main character can make a huge difference in an action film. Statham has a raw charisma that makes him a natural for this type of film, and I can't imagine it working as nearly as well with another actor playing the lead. Statham, good chemistry with the other actors, some great action scenes, and a decent script make it a worthwhile ride.
"The Transporter" looks great in Blu-ray, transferred at 18MBPS using MPEG 2 technology onto a 25GB single-layer disc. The film is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, and there's hardly a smidgeon of grain to be seen, though the colors could be a bit more saturated in some of the bright-light sequences. Overall, though, great picture.
Once again, the uncompressed Lossless Audio delivers a pure and robust sound that makes the explosions rock and the jazzy music soundtrack roll, with so many rounds of bullet tracers zinging across the rear speakers that you're almost tempted to check for empty casings. Great sound.
Aside from trailers for a number of films, the only bonus feature is the commentary by Statham and producer Steven Chasman. They have a little fun, share a little information, and talk a lot about the great job that co-writer Luc Besson and co-directors Louis Leterrier and Corey Yuen do. The most interesting parts come when the pair talks about how the action scenes were shot and how, often, one director would supervise the shooting of an action scene while the other was shooting another scene simultaneously. That's not just economical, it's almost as choreographed as the film's fight scenes. The commentary is better than most, but I wish that just once people would get the principals together, record their remarks, and then pull up scenes that illustrate what they have to say, rather than forcing viewers to watch the entire film over again. When Chasman and Statham are talking they're awfully engaging, but there are plenty of dead-air moments when they're disengaged.
As action films go, this one has some fun stunts, some big explosions, some inventive car-chase sequences, and a ratio of stunts-to-downtime that's weighted heavily in favor of the stunts. The scenery of Nice, Cannes, Marseilles and surrounding areas is a special bonus, because that backdrop, along with Martin's character, makes us recall some of the early Bond films.