Words that perhaps Luc Besson will seriously consider in the future when the thought arises to revisit The Transporter, Taken, or any other once-bankable, now creatively bankrupt action franchise his name remains attached to:
“Leave well enough alone.”
The latest from Besson’s film production label EuropaCorp, The Transporter Refueled, should stand right alongside Taken 3 earlier this year as very strong support for this relatively simple advice. An attempted reboot of the Transporter series, the new film merely feels like a watered-down retread of the earlier films, aping their style and signature visuals while delivering none of their energy, visceral impact, and cinematic ingenuity. Aside from an effort to center the film around a younger, more vulnerable, or at least a little less invincible “Transporter”, there’s nothing here that feels fresh, nothing that you haven’t already seen done in some way, shape, or form in a previous Transporter entry. Unlike the character himself, who never fails to make a delivery regardless of who is portraying him or how, this film simply fails to deliver the goods.
It all sets up much the same way previous Transporter adventures have. Frank Martin (now played by Ed Skrein of “Game of Thrones” fame), known among underworld figures who do business along the French Riviera as “The Transporter” for his willingness to serve as a courier for just about any package for the right price provided that the client can abide by the driver’s “unbreakable” rules, takes a meeting with a mysterious woman who seeks to contract his services. As he does with all other prospective clients, Frank lays down his rules — no names, no questions, no renegotiations — and makes clear that if any of them are broken or if the package is more than a minute late, he’s gone. The new client agrees to his terms, Frank takes the job, and a few hours later he’s in position to take custody of the package.
And just like always, that’s where the trouble starts and supposedly the fun begins. Only this time, not only has Frank been tricked in regards to what he will be transporting, but he also finds himself blackmailed into sticking to the job when he discovers that his new client has herself taken custody of Frank’s father, Frank Martin Sr. (Ray Stevenson, Thor: The Dark World), promising to reunite father and son once the job is done.
It’s all part of a daring scheme by the beautiful client, Anna (Loan Chabanol), and her three equally gorgeous cohorts to take their revenge on the Russian human trafficker who fifteen years before ushered them into lives of prostitution, Karasov (Radivoje Bukvić), a nasty piece of work with whom Frank Jr. had an association in his previous life as a British Special Forces operative. Anna and her friends want out of the life Karasov consigned them to, but not before they utterly destroy his business and leave him unable to follow them. To do it, they need, among other things, the services of a very skilled and motivated driver. With a gun to good old dad’s head, Frank Jr. is, of course, the perfect man for the job.
The Transporter Refueled appears to be the beginning of a return to feature films for the titular character. After 2008’s Transporter 3, the last entry to star Jason Statham in the lead role, the franchise moved to television with a series produced in part by Besson that ran for two seasons starting in 2012. In casting Skrein, Besson and director Camille Delamarre (Brick Mansions) seem to have the series’s longevity fully in mind: cast a younger lead while retaining all the Transporter films’ unique trappings and more films can be eked out of the franchise.
First, it’s important to note that Skrein isn’t the problem here. Yes, by no means is he Jason Statham, or even anywhere close in terms to on-screen charisma in the role of the soft-spoken, stoic, nigh-unstoppable Frank Martin. But again, the idea here seems to have been to make the Transporter the character more of a real person and less of an action movie force of nature, and so the shift to someone less physically imposing, more unassuming even wearing the immaculate black suit and driving that sweet black Audi makes sense. Plus, as anyone who’s seen the performer’s work as Stormcrow Daario Naharis in “Game of Thrones” already knows going in, Skrein is a versatile performer who can carry the screen in the right roles. To that end, in this film’s many chase scenes and brawling scenes, he delivers consistent intensity and never takes away from what he’s in the middle of.
And the problem certainly isn’t the film’s supporting cast, either. Ray Stevenson, playing the charming, larger-than-life Frank Sr., proves he could certainly front a Transporter or Taken-style film of his own with the presence he brings to the screen, while Parisian model turned actress Loan Chabanol, the latest European actress to play a femme fatale in the Luc Besson mold that’s taken shape since the action auteur’s Le Femme Nikita in 1990, credibly delivers the sultry sexuality as well as complicated range of emotions that her character’s backstory demands.
No, the problem seems to lie in the talent behind the camera. While Besson is credited as a producer and a writer in The Transporter Refueled, it’s not his vision in the director’s chair that’s moving this production along. Delamarre, who has many credits as an editor working on previous Besson’s projects, including Transporter 3, and directed 2nd unit material for “Transporter: The Series” before taking on full directorial duties for the first time in last year’s Brick Mansions, brings nothing new to the table in order to make this “reboot” feel fresh or re-invigorated in any meaningful way. If anything, the stunt choreography looks less elaborate and comes off as less entertaining to watch, and the car chase scenes, while to all appearances executed with devotion to “old school” techniques and little CGI, pale in comparison in terms of intensity and ingenuity when considered alongside stuntwork seen in other recent action thrillers such as Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and even the critically-panned Hitman: Agent 47, which opened in theaters just weeks ago.
Arguably, what made The Transporter films such fun to watch a decade ago with Statham commanding the screen was just how crazy the fight choreography in particular would get, and how equally dynamic the camerawork and editing would have to be keep up and make it all coherent to the viewer’s eye. Sad to say for all the series’s fans worldwide, but there’s none of that innovation to be found here. Instead, what we get in The Transporter Refueled is imitation, a knock-off of a once-compelling brand that’s sure to disappoint any going in with memories of how entertaining the early entries in the franchise truly were in their adrenaline-junkie targeted way. Wait for this one to come to cable, action fans, or better yet, rent it, then watch the originals — at least the first two — to fully appreciate just how far afield the series has gone.
The Transporter Refueled
Starring Ed Skrein, Ray Stevenson, Loan Chabanol, Gabriella Wright, Tatiana Pajkovic, Wenxia Yu, Rasha Bukvic, Lenn Kudrjawizki, Anatole Taubman, Noemie Lenoir. Directed by Camille Delamarre.
Running Time: 96 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, sexual material, some language, a drug reference and thematic elements.