Review: "Transporter 3" has style, but no substance

Thursday, December 4, 2008

I'll say this for the "Transporter" films: They've got style. Now if we want to talk about storyline and plausibility, that's another matter.

A basic principle of fiction is suspension of disbelief, which is a fancy term that just means what you see on screen or stage is performed in such a way that you come to believe — or suspend your disbelief — that what you're seeing is real. It's what keeps you on the edge of your seat. It allows you to cry, to cheer or to jump so much you spill your popcorn. It allows you to believe, for a short while, that Sean Penn really is Harvey Milk and we're back in the '70s.

So let's say that in some action movie, like "Transporter 3," the lead character — a regular human without superpowers — is getting a terrible beating and is slung so hard against a cinder block wall that his body goes through it, actually leaving a hole in the wall. When on the other side of the wall he acts like he just ran through a paper banner at a homecoming football rally, suspension of disbelief is no longer in play — unlike the real belief that you've just eaten some hard-earned cash on a night out at the movies.

"Transporter 3" is solely about Frank Martin (Jason Statham), who is a transporter (a driver who transports important but unidentified items around Europe without questions or concerns and never fails to deliver), and in this installment a bad guy is forcing Frank (who would rather just take time off to relax) to transport an item. To ensure cooperation and fulfillment, the bad guy has attached to Frank's wrist a bracelet that will blow up if Frank gets more than 75 feet away from the car. Along for the ride is a mysterious Ukrainian women (Natalya Rudakova). Frank doesn't like to have passengers, but ultimately a job's a job; he lives by his own hard and fast rules — no questions, no names, no concerns.

So she's attractive and seductive, and he's rugged and handsome. The car's black and sleek. He's the best driver there is. They're being chased. The only questions are will they make it and what crazy stuff will happen along the way?

And that's the main point of "Transporter 3." It's a movie about the crazy stuff that happens along the way — which is often silly, unbelievable and over the top.

There's a quick throw away line in Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder" when Stiller's character goes off on his own into the jungle. The others ask where he's going and Stiller tells them by reading from the script, "Smash cut to exterior, up river, dusk." The line is an inside joke that the script is one of those shallow but super-hip action flicks that uses the simple cut between scenes as a chance to amp up the action. For the smash cuts in "Transporter 3," they use a white flash plus a whooshing sound that's sometimes mixed with a time ramp. Whew! With the music, the body blows, the grunts, the revving cars, the whooshing cuts between shots, the film is simply a tour de force of — if nothing else — light and color.

The problem is it's smoke and mirrors in the worst sense. The car chases were awkward and sped up on film, making the action look unrealistic and causing this audience member to wonder if the cars were actually even going the speed limit during filming. The car tricks also didn't allow for physics, which made the stunts look a little goofy. The idea of the bracelet was inventive, but the scene when Frank has his car stolen and has to chase the speeding car by riding a bicycle — and taking a shortcut through an apartment building and factory — is just jaw-dropping bad.

Finally, I thought the idea of 10 guys against one (you know, ninja style — attacking one at a time) was put to rest a long time ago.

The film was written and produced by Luc Besson (who's not yet 50 but has produced 92 films), which tells you a lot about the hip style but lack of depth. The "Transporter" series has been a cash cow that's clearly run its course. It's time to throw the DVDs into the bargain bin and get on to the next project.

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