Aspiring Euro action-product provider Luc Besson makes two types of movies. There are the ones he directs, from his daftly inspired scripts, such as the Lolita-and-the-Beast action/gore lark "The Professional" and the deliriously kitsch space opera "The Fifth Element." And then there are lesser conceits palmed off to hired hands, kinetic Continental dross such as last year's sorry-ass chop-socky "Kiss of the Dragon." "The Transporter," directed by Hong Kong-action man Corey Yuen from a diaphanous script by Besson and frequent collaborator Robert Mark Kamen, fits snugly in Bresson's second tier. It's not totally without the filmmaker's trademark quirks, however--such as an amusingly meaningless obsession with the endangerment of male genitalia.
"The Transporter" stars Cool Britannia culture refugee Jason Statham (Snatch) as a suave ex-special forces operative/stolen-goods courier named Frank. After "transporting" some ill-mannered crooks from a bank job in a moderately frisky opening chase scene, generic scumbags hire Frank for another job transporting cocaine. When he hears mumbling from his sleek, Bondian BMW's trunk, he breaks one of the rules of impersonal transporter engagement by opening a leather bag containing a sporty but distraught gamine named Lai (Shu Qi).
As well as inserting a Bessonian lost girl in the action, Lai and her slow burn into Frank's frosty heart give the film's scumbags a (vague) reason to blow up his seaside villa. This leads to Frank's laid-back revenge and a vaporous subplot about Asian slave trading (apparently still a problem in the countryside around Marseilles). Along the way, many a man's genitalia are injured or threatened with injury, while Stanley Clarke's astringently throbbing score almost discovers Massive Attack before the rote car-chase close.
We never learn what country employed Frank as a special-forces op or in what war he fought. For a while, such obscurities work in a manner similar to the stylized nonspecificity of Walter Hill's "The Driver" (like Hill's film, "Transporter" has characters with purely descriptive names like "Boss," "Leader," and "Wall Street"). That is, until you realize that, for Besson, nothing matters except action, which, in his world, is always sexed up in faintly and not-so-faintly perverted ways.
For male S-M tops in need of inspiration, "The Transporter" offers an extended sequence in which Frank ropes and gags Lai, who is so pleased with her submission that she later becomes his cook and lover (in that order). In the penis-peril register, Yuen engineers a goofy set piece involving a semi-nude Frank and some muscley thugs doused in hot oil. They slip and slide all over one other, leading to scene in which Frank almost punctures a scumbag's privates; the two share a knowing glance afterward.
Because it dispenses with its plot specifics in about 15 minutes, "The Transporter" allows its audience ample time to ponder its multiple shortcomings and slight attractions. François Berléand is a hoot as Tarconi, a detective constantly one clue away from busting Frank, but Besson and Kamen's script tosses him aside just as Frank and Tarconi's interplay gives hope that the movie will morph into a mismatched buddy picture. Qi looks terrific but isn't in the action enough to establish a palpable sexual presence, which might be an intentional move related to the male-genital-endangerment subtext. But with characters this featherweight, who knows?
What Besson is doing is helping to create a new brand of Euro film in total thrall to U.S. action film values--he is a sort of Tony Blair of explosion cinema. From 1983's arty but interesting "Le Dernier" Combat to "The Transporter," his is a career of purposeful devolution. But Besson's intrinsically European sensibility disallows him from making movies that are utterly free of wit, while his aversion to outright sadism limits his American action-fan appeal.
Besson's Frank isn't really motivated by bloodthirsty vengeance--he's more miffed at the scumbags' bad manners than anything else and, after that playfully sadomasochistic intro riff, wants to do the right thing by Lai and get back to polishing his Beemer. He takes more pleasure in tailored Italian suits than in high-tech slaughter and spares many an anonymous bad guy right at the point that Bruce, Arnold, or Vin Diesel would spout a thick-headed bon mot before lowering the boom. Until he is willing to do what it takes to win over U.S. genre fans, Besson would be better advised staying with his weird, interesting niche films, or going straight to video with trifles like "The Transporter."