The Transporter movies, a B-level series of action pictures produced and co-written by busy French genre impresario Luc Besson, have simple goals. They just want to provide exuberantly ridiculous car chases and clever hand-to-hand combat, a man in a fine tailored suit handsomely in the middle of it all. They’re mostly enjoyable on that level, but are otherwise best known for coronating Jason Statham an action star, casting him in the role of a black-market driver, a tightly controlled, expressively competent, vaguely bemused, adeptly violent man with a code. He spent three movies saving kids, stopping polluters, freeing captives, and rescuing refugees, more often than not by engaging in high-speed precision driving and by punching people in creative ways. My favorite involves his use of a hose to take out half a dozen baddies in Transporter 2, the franchise’s high-water mark, so to speak.
So when The Transporter Refueled decided to recast (a TV spin-off already had, but nevermind) the filmmakers had a difficult task. On the one hand, the character has little backstory, few attachments, a stock personality, and almost no continuity. But on the other hand, The Transporter has been affixed almost irretrievably with Statham’s screen persona, to the point where the actor turned up this summer in Furious 7 and Spy playing what were two very different variations on his most famous role, with an audience expected to be instantly in on the joke. Here we have a relatively new face, Ed Skrein, most famous for a handful of Game of Thrones episodes, stepping into the shiny black Audi gleaming in fawning product placement sheen, ready to make the part his own. He doesn’t, really, but the movie zooms ahead anyway.
Refueled is a strange sideways reboot, expecting us to already know who The Transporter is: an excellent driver following a strict set of rules for his behavior and protection. But we’re not expected to care about any particular past story beats or backstory. Everything old is new, and vice versa. Skrein’s first scene involves beating back prospective carjackers, a feat he accomplishes drolly and quickly. Then he’s off to pick up his next fare. He fits the part like he fits the suit. He’s slim, fit, pretty, and capable of throwing a convincing punch. He lacks Statham’s charisma, or his knack for wryly spitting bad dialogue, and using casually athletic improvisation melded to a stubborn persistence. But screenwriters Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, and Besson have written a slightly softer Transporter. He ices his bloodied knuckles, gives in to romantic overtures, and loves his dad. He can still use a jet ski to throw himself out of the water and into a moving car, though.
The plot is this. The Transporter’s father (Ray Stevenson) is kidnapped. The only way to save him is to cooperate with a mysterious group of women (led by Loan Chabanol) who wear identical platinum blonde wigs and tight black dresses, the better to confuse security cameras when they pull off daring capers. It turns out they’re prostitutes determined to rob their evil pimp (Radivoje Bukvic) before ridding themselves of him for good. What follows is a diverting revenge-fueled heist. It provides an excuse for a variety of competently executed action sequences, director Camille Delamarre (Brick Mansions) allowing his stunt crews and fight choreographers just enough space to show off. There’s a car chase down tight streets, several bouts of close-quarters fisticuffs, a silly smash through an airport, and a standoff on a yacht which conveniently has a room full of antique weapons.
It gets the job done. This programmatic production is a reasonably well-made minor distraction. It’s slickly photographed, jumpily edited, propulsively exciting, and violent in a mostly bloodless way. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, bits and pieces of action movies past recombined in sleek packaging. The father/son dynamic is straight out of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, pops calling him junior a lot. The action moves like any car chase picture with pauses for Jackie Chan-inspired footwork. And the women’s fairly clever plan rolls out in an attention-holding way despite operating like any and every movie heist. It would be more than vaguely empowering if they weren’t also trophies, like Fury Road dragged down a mad Maxim road. Still, the end result is fast enough and silly enough to hold together and work its B-minus magic. I’ve seen better; I’ve seen worse. It’s stupid, senseless, and unnecessary. But that’s not entirely the same thing as bad.