[Transporter 3 is now playing in theaters.]
When XXX came out in 2002, a popular theme for entertainment journalism trend pieces was to note that—with the rapidly approaching end of the Schwarzenneger, Stallone and Seagal era—there was a gaping hole where a new generation of action star should be. Vin Diesel was supposed to take up the mantle, but, his career having subsequently gone too far in some direction or other, Jason Statham made for a plausible second contender. Cf. a far-seeing Manohla Dargis reviewing 2002's The Transporter: "the actor certainly seems equipped to develop into a mid-weight alternative to Vin Diesel."
It's a strange movie—a Besson production designed to appeal to every European with a yen for trashy action, directed by Cory Yuen in a hyper-melodramatic style suggesting he thought he was making a real Hong Kong action-drama, rather than just synthesizing everything Besson liked about those movies in a faster package. There's some stellar fights and some HK grace notes (Statham's opening drive to classical music is the kind of shock you'd expect to see in a clean action package from the 90s), but mostly it succeeds by pummeling you with constant, mostly plausible havoc. 2005's Transporter 2 is something else altogether, a gleeful celebration of the possibilities for action set-pieces once you decide to ignore physics. Ditching the first film's rote romance for asexual machismo and inventively absurd choreography, Transporter 2 delivers guilty fun on schedule. Statham came into his taciturn own, embodying macho self-confidence with a touch of the archetypal wounded wanderer without playing any of the elements too heavily. His persona didn't get in the way of the fun.
Unfortunately, someone decided that what audiences really cared about weren't the constant absurdities, but the psychological nuances of Jason Statham, like whether he'd get laid or not. So Transporter 3 is full of a lot of talking—more talking overall than chasing or explosions—and, most ingloriously, a seduction scene that feels about 10 minutes long, wherein a Ukrainian woman (Natalya Rudakova) bullies and coaxes Statham into an ad hoc-striptease/copulation session. I know Statham has his gay fans, but did anyone really want to stop for that long to look at his chest? Statham's pretty good at a low-grade, steely-eyed unflappable macho kind of mode; to bog everything down by tokenly humanizing him (to an even greater extent than the first film did) is roughly as bad an idea as thinking The Good, The Bad And The Ugly would be improved if Clint had some hot sex scenes.
A lot of Transporter 3 is wasted on talk and character bonding between Statham and the Ukrainian. Occasionally something happens to deliver on the ostensible premise: a well-choreographed jacket fight, with Statham making use of his wardrobe to throw people around. There's also a market chase scene which—for mostly logical reasons—requires Statham first to make like Indiana Jones in the marketplace, then jack a bike and use dumpsters as ramps for a ride over sweatshop tables, and finally crash through the car window and throw someone out (the car, of course, being precisely stopped outside the sweatshop window). This is why I come to watch Transporter movies.
The Ukrainian woman comes in handy exactly once, when—as prelude to a surprisingly mundane car chase—she pops some leftover ecstasy from Ibiza, which at least suggests a new strategy for enjoying yourself at these kinds of things. Maybe I just haven't seen a blockbuster in a multiplex in a while, but Transporter 3 is relentlessly loud, a constant roar, and director Olivier Megaton—a self-important former graffiti artist who apparently thinks he has a vision—cuts everything to coherence's breaking point. (Transporter 2 understood that to be completely over-the-top, you also need to be clear on what exactly is happening.) In its dreary "characterization," Transporter 3 forgets what I (and presumably everyone else) came to see: not the time-filling drama of bad network TV, but the limitations of movement in Earth's gravity defied every two minutes.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion AV Club and Paste Magazine, among others.