- The Washington Times - Friday, October 11, 2002

In "The Transporter," Frank Martin sets three rules with clients securing his delivery services. Never change the deal. Never exchange names. Never look at the package.

Action-movie fans require their heroes to fulfill one golden rule appear capable of carrying out the superhuman feats we're about to witness.

By that measure, "The Transporter's" Jason Statham deserves an action franchise to call his own.

"The Transporter" could be the start of just such a series, if audiences can swallow its inconsistencies long enough to enjoy its dizzying set pieces.

Mr. Statham, whose generous jaw and bald pate recall Bruce Willis minus the smirk, is as capable an action hero as a studio could muster.

The British actor, best known for a turn in Guy Ritchie's "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," brings an athleticism to the role that makes the most outlandish stunts seem almost plausible.

Almost. It's a shame to watch "The Transporter" succumb to the action genre's excesses, especially following a tighter-than-expected opening reel.

Retired Special Forces agent Frank Martin lives on a sun-kissed villa in France, where he takes jobs transporting goods hither and yon. Transportation is a precise business, and Frank glories in the nuances of his craft even if his clients engage in illegal activities.

Between assignments, Frank pampers his BMW and dodges tough questions from a local police inspector who suspects Frank of being linked to a recent bank robbery.

The transporter's latest assignment, though, complicates his rigorous lifestyle.

A flat tire, a plot device as old as cinema itself, forces him to look in his BMW's trunk for a spare. Apparently, the package placed in his trunk by his client is now wriggling around and emitting a low moaning sound.

For once, Frank's military discipline shatters. He opens the bag and sets the attractive young woman inside (Shu Qi) free briefly so that she can relieve herself.

Her subsequent escape sets off a chain of violent events that shatter Frank's secure world. Now, he must fall back on his fighting skills for both his survival and that of the mysterious woman fate has linked with him.

What starts as a reasonable spy-style caper escalates, or rather devolves, into yet another mindless action film.

The difference here is Mr. Statham's granite-like presence and director Cory Yuen's majestic action sequences. Mr. Statham's bulky physique never hinders those wonderfully explosive fights, the most memorable of which has him fighting in the middle of an oil spill. For a hulk of an actor, Mr. Statham moves with surprising grace.

If only the film had focused more on the curious inspector, or on Frank's mysterious military background, it might have distinguished itself from the blood-and-guns pack.

"The Transporter" doesn't shirk the action genre's conventions, from macho villains to the stoic hero with a bit of heart buried deep within his iron chest. The chief villain, an unnamed figure dubbed "Wall Street," still makes a formidable foe thanks to actor Matt Schulze's steely mug.

Mr. Yuen creates a stylized world in which reality is often cast aside. What balances the ledger, much like last year's "Ocean's Eleven," is that the opposing forces seem well matched. Sure, Frank can outslug a small army, but his foes possess an unlimited supply of reinforcements.

The action sequences, and they are many, owe a good deal to the Hong Kong tradition of filmmaking.

One segment, in which Frank avenges an attack made on his home, is among the more exhilarating set pieces in recent memory, an honestly breath-catching piece of filmmaking.

Screenwriter Luc Besson, whose caffeinated brand of movie making (1991's "La Femme Nikita," 1997's "The Fifth Element") straddles the line between reality and hyperfiction, once again creates a mismatched male/female tandem. Here, the duo of Frank and Lai, the "package" he releases, never fully engage us, as attractive as they may appear.

Miss Qi lends Lai some needed pluck in a role that should be listed as "underwritten female character" in the credits, but it's not enough to overshadow the gunplay.

Ultimately, "The Transporter" is a pulpy action caper with slick action scenes, but rarely do such films boast a hero as credible as the one Mr. Statham supplies.

** 1/2.

TITLE: "The Transporter"

RATING: PG-13 (Numerous episodes of violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Cory Yuen. Screenplay by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen.

RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes


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