- The Washington Times - Friday, October 11, 2002

For British actor Jason Statham, star of "The Transporter," being at the proverbial right place at the right time meant peddling fake jewelry on the streets of London.

Director Guy Ritchie, now best known as Madonna's husband, was scouting talent for his 1998 indie hit, "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," several years ago when he met Mr. Statham hawking his wares to tourists.

The director wanted a streetwise cast to flesh out "Barrels." Mr. Statham seemed a perfect fit for the amateur-heavy ensemble.

"We'd go running from the police if they came," Mr. Statham remembers of his street-con days.

"[Mr. Ritchie] took a big risk using people who hadn't been in front of the camera before," Mr. Statham says.

The actor, whose publicity guardians will give his age only as "early thirties," didn't consider his own transformation from street peddler to actor such a stretch.

"You develop a big mouth on the street corner. You're not shy talking to a bunch of people," says the actor, talking about his unconventional past during a phone call to promote his new film.

The actor's unshakable confidence is apparent to anyone watching the film, his first starring vehicle.

"The Transporter," written and produced by French filmmaker Luc Besson (of "La Femme Nikita" fame), finds Mr. Statham (pronounced STAY-them) taking a shot at action hero stardom.

He stars as Frank Martin, a retired Special Forces agent who transports "goods" for a series of morally dubious clients. His character thrives by following a simple set of rules: Never change the deal, never ask for names and never peek at the package in question.

Frank breaks the last, critical rule when a package deposited in his trunk starts to wriggle and moan for help.

Mr. Statham praises Mr. Besson's approach to the project.

"He has a very crystal clear vision," Mr. Statham says of Mr. Besson, who wrote the script with the actor in mind. "I was inspired when I saw 'The Professional' and 'La Femme Nikita.' These are movies that I can watch over and over again."

He also liked the way Mr. Besson fleshed out Frank's past.

"He's in the military and he's fed up with the bureaucracy of the whole thing," he says.

When Frank finds a body trapped in his car trunk, "he gets the opportunity to do good again. He can make a difference," he says.

• • •

"The Transporter" features surreal action sequences certain to draw some critical snickers, and a cast of actors mostly unknown to American audiences.

The uphill climb the film faces at the box office isn't lost on Mr. Statham.

"I'm not a big star," he says, a hint of nervous laughter bubbling underneath his thick British growl. "A lot of people get drawn to the box office by big names. It's really difficult to say how it's going to go."

The actor has no dramatic training. To date, his biggest-profile projects not filmed by Mr. Ritchie ("Barrels" and 2000's "Snatch") have been a trio of films released last year "The One," "Ghosts of Mars" and "Mean Machine." None of those films left much of an impression either with audiences or critics.

Yet Mr. Statham's physical presence may be enough to muscle his new film some attention. His chiseled physique has served him well through the years.

Between street sales, Mr. Statham served on the British national diving squad, taking part in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.

His aquatic training, combined with a devotion to martial arts, gave him the necessary background to tackle the physically demanding role.

"You ain't gonna find an actor who's been involved in sports as much as me and can do what I can do," says Mr. Statham, a native of the London suburb of Sydenham. "There's no one in the U.K. doing what I'm doing."

Actors in the past didn't have to do all their own stunts, he says, as he did for the film. They leaned on stuntmen to tackle the nastiest on-screen scrapes. That, combined with some fast editing, could turn a slow-of-foot actor into a blur of fisticuffs.

"Its rubbish," Mr. Statham says of such cinematic trickery. "My granny can do it. They can make her look tough."

Mr. Statham appears comfortable showcasing his physical prowess on screen, but it helped that Mr. Ritchie nudged him toward a full-time acting career.

After "Barrels," "Guy was saying, 'You should think about this seriously. There's going to be more work for you.' It's great to hear that from somebody," Mr. Statham says.

That doesn't mean the actor will be caught studying the "Method" acting style anytime soon.

Mr. Statham takes a simple approach to his craft.

"You kind of dispel the myth about acting, try not to think about it or make it too complicated," he says.

That approach helped him navigate Mr. Ritchie's movie sets.

During those films, "you never think you're gonna get the film made," he says. "It's a very sarcastic environment. You have to have a thick skin to work with him. I love that kind of stuff. It works. It's a lads' movie. Every day you gotta be on your toes."

Director Cory Yuen's disciplined "Transporter" set provided a counterbalance to that casual experience.

Plus, the two films with Mr. Ritchie took about six weeks to shoot. "The Transporter," in comparison, needed 80 days, 78 of which required Mr. Statham front and center.

Mr. Statham's next project features a strong enough cast to take some pressure off of him.

"The Italian Job," in which he plays a character named Handsome Rob, is a remake of the 1969 British cult film of the same name. It will star Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron and Edward Norton. The film is set for release next year.

"We steal gold and we get double-crossed. It's an English classic," he says of the original, which starred Michael Caine.

If "The Transporter" crushes its competition this weekend, it could mean more physically demanding roles for Mr. Statham or, perhaps, another round playing Frank Martin.

He doesn't mind, if only to work once more with Mr. Besson.

Besides, who wouldn't want to be an action hero?

"Arnold was great in many of his films," he says, alluding to muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger. "'Predator' was fantastic. Sylvester Stallone was great. But they're getting on a bit now."

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