4.5 out of 10
The Transporter Refueled Cast:
Ed Skrein as Frank Martin
Directed by Camille Delamarre
It is very difficult for any sort of long-running franchise to get better as it increases in age, and almost impossible for them to change once they’ve locked in on a style, making most films of this type an exercise in swapping parts. It doesn’t necessarily happen with the first or even second film – it took three films for the James Bond juggernaut to figure out a formula which would please worldwide crowds regularly, and it was only recently that the producers of the Fast & Furious and Mission: Impossible films managed the same after years of tinkering. The race is long and seldom goes to the swift, or something like that.
But once done it is very seldom undone, suggesting audience taste in aggregate does not change very much even over generations, and leaving even the now ubiquitous reboot more of an exercise in wheel spinning than anything else. (Note for people who keep using the word wrong: a sequel and a reboot are not the same thing, even with a cast change.) These sort of things rely on a simple, straightforward set of rules just as professional transporter Frank Martin (Skrein) does. He only seems to care ‘when,’ ‘where’ and ‘how heavy’ … and inevitably throws his rules out the door when a beautiful woman comes knocking.
Which is usually where the trouble starts for Frank and it’s as true this time as every other when said beautiful woman (Loan Chabanol) hires him as a getaway driver for what turns out to be a daring bank heist. The degree to which that sounds familiar to previous Transporter films is certainly intentional such that – even with a complete cast flip – The Transporter Refueled is easily of a piece with every other film in the series, from its one-note hero to the whiff of anti-immigration prejudice surrounding its villain. Think less Casino Royale and more On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, though not anywhere near as good as either of those films.
The lack of experimentation (or depth) shouldn’t come as any surprise, not because this is the fourth film in a series and the formula is (usually) well set by that point, but because the pressure to create easily transportable entertainment for the growing global audience has made this sort of ersatz change common as focus shifts to broadly understandable gags. The native understanding required to make many forms of drama or comedy work don’t always survive the cultural divide, but explosions and hitting someone in the face with a fire hose translates into every language. Not bothering with subtleties like coherence or human emotions means it can cross borders easily with its essence more or less intact.
It’s an option Frank himself wishes he had as well when the simple bank robbery turns into a complicated blackmail scheme against France’s biggest pimp and the bullets start flying. Just another day in the life of the Transporter, and that’s exactly the way writer-producer Luc Besson wants it.
An avid student of Hollywood filmmaking over his quarter century career, Besson has reproduced both the best and worst of the Hollywood formula within the European milieu, eventually reducing all of his output – The Transporter, Taken, From Paris With Love – to the same simple plots, easy to understand emotional cues and barely developed relationships. That said, Besson and the various directors he’s brought on to shepherd the series (long time EuropaCorp editor-turned-director Camille Delamarre joins here after the success of his first film, Brick Mansions) have and continue to play with the exact shape of those pieces.
Refueled offers one of the best experiments of style yet as it replaces the never particularly funny or interesting Inspector Tarconi (François Berléand) with the charming and roguish Frank Martin, Sr (Stevenson). Before anyone gets their hopes up, no this does not open any doors into learning something about Frank, Jr. as a character – except for the fact that his name is Junior – but unlike literally everyone else in the film, Stevenson knows exactly what kind of movie he is in and relishes it, bringing a breezy smile and knowing smirk to every line and situation and keeping anyone from ever getting too serious.
It also speaks to Refueled’s workman-like composition that Skrein slides into Jason Statham’s suit with little to no effort, portraying Frank’s bland-bordering-on-bored competence and struggle to display any emotion beyond petulant annoyance as well as his forbear.
On the other hand, these experiments can continue on with little to no impact on the film or series because the whole is less than the sum of its parts and what events and changes do occur don’t ultimately matter. Beautiful women are abused, people are shot and killed, but they may as well be mannequins for all anyone involved seems to feel anything as most of the series’ weaknesses remain in full view despite the tinkering going on behind the scenes.
Frank is once again not the captain of his destiny or even particularly invested in the primary plot – he goes along because his father his being held hostage – and what little connection he has with the villain is in the past, brought up in the context of a ‘remember that time when we…’ speech which puts it out of sight and out of mind for the audience and offers no impact on what’s happening in the moment.
The villain himself, besides doing little but twirling his mustache (metaphorically) for most of the film is again relegated to some sort of foreign ‘other’ infringing on civilization as is the case in most of Besson’s films – Asian in the first Transporter, Latino in the second and some sort of Eastern European in the last two iterations. Unlike most of the other elements in the film, it’s hidden (and may not even be conscious) and certainly hasn’t stopped the series from crossing borders, as any emotion or thought that isn’t blared at full speed and volume is lost in the tumult of shooting and punching.
The Transporter Refueled is more pointless entertainment than anything else, not in existence to give people just a harmless good time, but more because the people who make them don’t what else to do. Like a TV series which has been on too long, by now everyone is just going through the motions. And while there are usually fans of even that sort of thing, The Transporter was never the most inspired series to begin with, and its detritus is something of a zombie slowly but irrevocably consuming our brains.
It may not have ever lived up to its theoretical self – a Formula 1 driver facing the serpentine course of its plot with nothing but confidence and quick reflexes – but it’s dotage has fallen well below the lowest of even its creator’s expectations, forced to exist because it can – an endless NASCAR race trapped in a neverending circle, going round and round and round for eternity with no beginning and no end.