THE TRANSPORTER (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violent Sequences and some Sensuality

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Directed by: Louis Leterrier & Corey Yuen

Written by: Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen

Starring: Jason Statham, Shu Qi, Francois Berleand, Matt Schulze & Ric Young

Jason Statham began to make a name for himself in comedic crime flicks, but 2002’s THE TRANSPORTER actually gave him his first leading role in an action movie. The entire plot, tone, characters, and logic of THE TRANSPORTER can be summed up in four words: it’s an action movie. This film doesn’t care about the laws of physics, plot holes, or developing three-dimensional characters. Instead, TRANSPORTER’s purpose is to use a threadbare plot as an excuse for an endless amount of car chases, gun fights, hand-to-hand martial arts, and explosions. It delivers on all those fronts and nothing more. That’s exactly what it was intended to be from the get-go and THE TRANSPORTER is a pure popcorn entertainment.

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Frank Martin is a transporter for hire. He’ll take any job from anyone and sticks to three simple unbreakable rules (The deal is final. No names. Never open the package). His latest client is a particularly shady gentlemen and against his better judgment, Frank breaks his third rule and opens the duffel bag in his trunk. It turns out that Frank has been unwittingly involved in a case of human trafficking. When the scummy client (simply known as “Wall Street”) decides to put out a contract on his head, Frank Martin decides its time to violently rescue 400 people in a shipping container…with some help from Lai Kwai (the girl in Wall Street’s duffel bag).

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TRANSPORTER’s plot is simple and I did my damndest to class it up in that synopsis. To be perfectly honest, the screenplay isn’t well written. Co-writer Luc Besson has become known for over-the-top, silly entertainment (ala LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, TAKEN) and THE TRANSPORTER might be his laziest script ever. Even the sequels are slightly more complicated (though far more ludicrous) than this first installment. The budding romance between Lai Kwai and Frank Martin isn’t the least bit convincing. One third-act plot “twist” takes up a minute before revealing itself as a lie. THE TRANSPORTER is very much by-the-numbers and loaded with clichés, but it’s all the more enjoyable because of those things.

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Luc Besson doesn’t want a pesky plot or character development getting in the way of opportunities for ridiculous stylized fight scenes, fiery explosions, and high-speed car chases. As a result, TRANSPORTER packs in as many excuses for adrenaline-pumping action scenes as it possibly can…logic and laws of physics be damned. The film constantly bombards the viewer with lots of convenient developments as anti-hero Frank Martin always seems ten steps ahead of everybody surrounding him. This is a man who will suck the air out of a dead thug’s mouth to stay underwater. He’ll also cover himself in thick oil to whoop ass six ways to Sunday in the film’s best sequence. Frank Martin is pretty much invincible and Jason Statham plays him to stoic perfection. It’s true that Jason Statham is basically playing himself in bad-ass action role (not a bad thing in my opinion) and that trend really started with the character of Frank Martin.

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The only major problem that I have with THE TRANSPORTER is that the film was clearly edited down for a PG-13 rating. Two specific scenes were obviously trimmed to the MPAA’s liking and one of those moments involves the scumbag villain’s demise. To be fair, Wall Street isn’t much of a big baddie to begin with though. Matt Schulze only sneers and throws out occasional insults in the role, but he still deserved a better send-off than the toned-down one he receives. As Lai Kwai, Shu Qi was clearly cast for her looks and nothing more. Her line delivery hints that she didn’t know much English on the set and her character is just a damsel-in-distress for Frank to save. That flaw doesn’t exactly seem entirely out-of-place in a dumb-as-a-rock action flick that’s clearly aimed at guys who just want to watch someone kick ass and save the day.

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THE TRANSPORTER is the defining cinematic moment when Jason Statham became a full-fledged action star. The plot may be nonexistent and the non-Statham characters have no personalities whatsoever, but THE TRANSPORTER can be fully enjoyed on a cheesy “guilty pleasure” level. The film’s adrenaline-pumping, ridiculous third act really cements it as a legitimately good action flick in my eyes. There’s lots of over-the-top absurdity, laugh-out-loud silliness (that’s played mostly straight) and minimal dialogue. It’s 92 minutes of action and not much else. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Grade: B

THE TRANSPORTER: REFUELED (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Violence and Action, Sexual Material, some Language, a Drug Reference and Thematic Elements

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Directed by: Camille Delamarre

Written by: Luc Besson, Bill Collage & Adam Cooper

Starring: Ed Skrein, Ray Stevenson, Loan Chabanol, Noemie Lenoir, Gabriella Wright & Tatjana Pajkovic

Out of all the action films from the early 2000’s, THE TRANSPORTER seemed like the least likely to get a reboot. While I may not necessarily be the biggest fan of the TRANSPORTER series, the first two films served as constant guilty pleasures throughout my junior high and high school years. My enjoyment of those first two movies was to a degree where I had enough nostalgia to be intrigued by the trailer for the latest film in this ridiculous, over-the-top and unintentionally hilarious franchise. My interest and hesitant hopes were misguided as REFUELED ignores what worked about this franchise and becomes a bloated, dreary affair. Serving as an origin story for the title hero, this reboot doesn’t entertain or excite.

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Frank Martin is a former mercenary turned shady transporter. Running on a strict set of rules, Frank will transport anything for anybody as long as the deal agreed upon stays set in stone, he doesn’t know what he’s transporting, and his employer’s identity is kept anonymous. All of Frank’s rules get broken when he’s hired by a quartet of prostitutes as a getaway driver. The situation drastically changes when it’s revealed that the hookers have taken Frank’s father hostage and force our Transporter to aid them in a mission to take down a powerful Russian human trafficker. Frank finds himself kicking ass, taking names, and falling for Anna (the leader of these prostitutes turned rebels) along the way.

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Much like James Bond is now played by Daniel Craig and Mad Max is now played by Tom Hardy, Frank Martin has left Jason Statham behind and replaced him with Ed Skrein (who left GAME OF THRONES to do…this?). Skrein isn’t exactly Statham. Despite how tough he tries to act, you can’t help but feel that Skrein is just a little boy trying to wear a grown man’s Statham suit. His action hero antics seem somehow more over-the-top than any other entries in TRANSPORTER franchise (which is saying something). Frank Martin was a man of few words in the original movies and Skrein talks entirely too much for his own good. It almost feels like Luc Besson is trying to take a CASINO ROYALE route in rebooting this series, by fleshing out an origin story for how Frank fully became the Transporter. However, none of it works. Throw in Ray Stevenson as Frank’s father (who at least seems to be having some fun with his role) and a bland group of sexualized heroines, then you’ve got yourself what might be the biggest step backwards for a movie series this year. Also, the villain is a boring Russian pimp who comes off like a thousand other action movie baddies who we’ve seen in recent years.

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If there’s anything nice to be said about THE TRANSPORTER: REFUELED, those compliments stem from one decent action scene and slick visuals. This movie looks good. You can tell there was a budget behind the scenes. The locations are gorgeous and well-shot. That isn’t enough to keep me interested when the movie drags between action scenes and then phones in really stupid excuses for a random beat-down (e.g. Frank punches out a guy that tells him he can’t park his car). This screenplay drags between set pieces and it’s not even as if any of these set-pieces are any particularly impressive. For the most part, they come off as desperate and eye-rollingly random. Only one sequence actually did the trick for me and it involved Frank taking down a bunch of guys at the back of a night club. That sequence was the only moment in the film that combined the silliness and cool action that made the first TRANSPORTER so damn enjoyable. It certainly doesn’t help that this film feels like two hours and only clocks in at just over 90 minutes (including a pointless, useless epilogue).

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I know this pun has probably been made in other reviews, but I’m still going to state the obvious. This isn’t so much of THE TRANSPORTER: REFUELED as it is THE TRANSPORTER: RUNNING ON FUMES. Ed Skrein was not a good replacement for Statham in the role of Frank Martin. He just feels all-wrong for the part. The rest of the cast is just as bland and boring as Skrein’s performance is, with the possible exception of Ray Stevenson. Save for one action scene, the car chases and fights in this movie are filled with an annoying amount of quick-editing and slow-motion that ruin any potential they might have originally had. The movie does get a couple of points for being unintentionally funny, but it’s mostly going at 10 mph when it should be speeding at over 100. Thus far, REFUELED is easily the worst action movie I’ve sat through this year…but I didn’t bother with AGENT 47. Take that as you will.

Grade: D

LUCY (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Disturbing Images, and Sexuality

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Directed by: Luc Besson

Written by: Luc Besson

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Choi Min-Sik, Amr Waked

Luc Besson doesn’t make normal movies. That’s a cinematic fact. His projects range in quality due to his quirky sensibilities. Though I’m convinced the man will never top LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL, Besson has some form of creativity injected into every piece of his work. With his written-but-not-directed 3 DAYS TO KILL surprising me earlier this year, I was hoping that LUCY might be something more than a so-so piece of sci-fi action that looked iffy at best. Judging from the sold out theater, LUCY is bound to be a summer hit, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The movie takes a neat idea and rolls with it in entertaining fashion, but jumps the shark in an overblown ending that will leave a lot of people (myself included) unsatisfied.

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Lucy is a young woman forced into a dangerous situation. Thanks to her asshole boyfriend’s blunder, she’s caught up in a drug smuggling scheme. The cargo is a concentrated powder that has unforeseen side effects and has been sewn into her stomach. After being kicked in her newly stitched up area, the bag of drugs leaks inside her and Lucy’s brain activity is suddenly skyrocketing. The average 10% that humans use is a thing of the past for Lucy. As intelligence and superhuman abilities increase, her life expectancy drops. Lucy must make the most of the time she has left with the help of a police officer (Amr Waked) and a renowned scientist (Morgan Freeman). Meanwhile, the gangsters who surgically implanted that stuff inside Lucy’s tummy are hunting for her.

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The first thing that really struck me about LUCY was the oddball style in how it was told. The first 20 minutes or so cut between Lucy’s ordeal and Morgan Freeman delivering a lecture. Lots of montages featuring stock footage were also inserted throughout. One example is Lucy walking into the den of gangsters and a deer being hunting by a pack of cheetahs. It is a strange thing, but it also provides some laughs during the Morgan Freeman’s lecture. A solid sense of humor is present too that is delivered through Lucy doing something unexpected to someone in her way, whether they’re a good person or one of the many Korean gangsters. The film also cuts to percentage cards (28%, 40%, 50%, etc.) as Lucy’s powers increase. I felt that this was a neat way of letting the audience know just how powerful she was becoming at the moment and how much time was left until the conclusion. Something that might throw audiences for the loop is how LUCY is not what it’s being advertised as. It never fully launches into insane violence and embraces its R-rating (e.g. the final shootout in LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL). The end result does wind up being fun and trippy, but there are plenty problems that weight it down.

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As far as the acting is concerned, Scarlett Johansson continues to impress with her abilities and range of characters she can bring life to. This is a woman who in less than the past year has played a comic book heroine, a romantic lead, an alien, the voice of a robot, and doesn’t do anything too similar to these roles as Lucy. The title character herself points out that as she becomes stronger the things that make her human are beginning to fade. Johansson goes from scared victim to near emotionless badass in the space of this film and does it well. A face that might be familiar to fans of OLDBOY and I SAW THE DEVIL would be Choi Min-Sik popping up as the big bad. His character does nothing more but pose a threat for Lucy. There’s still plenty of entertainment to be had from his presence as a mob boss. Amr Waked appears as a near useless sidekick character in the police officer. He even states that Lucy doesn’t need him anymore about halfway through the film and his point is legit. He serves almost no purpose. Morgan Freeman also plays Morgan Freeman, though they don’t come out and call him that.

LUCY, from left: Morgan Freeman, Scarlett Johansson, 2014. ph: Jessica Forde/©Universal

Throughout the running time, LUCY dives into utter lunacy. It’s all in the vein of being fun and while it succeeds at that, the film does drag in places. It really jumps the shark in the finale. The movie went from being wild and crazy to art house territory and this felt completely inappropriate to the movie that the audience had been sitting through for just over an hour (the running time is a scant 90 minutes). In some places, the film takes on content that TRANSCENDENCE tried to do and completely failed at. LUCY doesn’t fare much better, but there’s a whole lot of silly B-flick material that was enjoyable to sit through. The movie is a mixed bag as a whole and it’s not what most people are expecting it to be in the slightest.

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Taken on a purely superficial level, LUCY is cool in the sense that I had fun watching it and there are lots of good comic relief. However, it’s not nearly as action-packed as one might think (with about 4 or 5 notable set-pieces) and dabbles in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY material in the final 10 minutes. It’s a silly flick that suffered from an identity crisis. Also for being only 90 minutes, the movie drags in spots. This is far from Luc Besson’s finest hour, but I’d say LUCY is worth a look on cable, Netflix, or Redbox. There’s not enough positive qualities to recommend laying down hard-earned cash for a theater ticket for this one.

Grade: C+

3 DAYS TO KILL (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, some Sensuality and Language

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Directed by: McG

Written by: Adi Hasak & Luc Besson

Starring: Kevin Costner, Hailee Steinfeld, Amber Heard, Connie Nielsen, Richard Sammel, Eriq Ebouaney & Tomas Lemarquis

Luc Besson is certainly an interesting guy in the film industry. He’s directed some great films in the past (e.g. LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL), but also had a hand in writing ridiculously entertaining action flicks (e.g. TAKEN, TRANSPORTER, LOCKOUT, etc). Some were more successful than others box-office wise and others received less than warm reception from critics. 3 DAYS TO KILL is one of his latest projects. Thus far, it has been doing a decent enough job at the box office and is being panned by most major critics. Instead of Besson taking the director’s chair on this film, McG takes the helm and surprisingly delivers a competent and cool romp. This far from the best action movie that will come out this year (personally, I’m holding out for THE RAID 2) and it has some problems, but 3 DAYS TO KILL is big, dumb fun that delivers what you’d expect from a movie like this.

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Ethan Renner is a loose-cannon CIA agent who doesn’t play by the rules. After a mission gone awry, he’s diagnosed with cancer and has three months left to live. So Ethan returns to Paris to get his last affairs in order and spend the remaining days making up for lost time with his distant family. Being an awkward as both a bad husband and father, Ethan finds that catching up with his daughter and wife is more difficult than he was anticipating. Then he meets Vivi, another CIA assassin, who offers him an experimental drug to cure his cancer. The catch is that he has to work on a top-secret mission to take down an arms dealer known simply as The Wolf, all while juggling his hormonal teenage daughter and the disapproving looks of his wife. Wacky hijinks ensue that include lots of gunshots, explosions, car chases, and daddy time with his daughter.

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I never really saw Kevin Costner as an action hero. He was good in ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES and intimidating in MR. BROOKS, but I have never imagined him as a gun-totting badass (I have yet to see THE BODYGUARD though). Costner is surprisingly well cast here as Ethan. I bought into this middle-aged man shooting bad guys, taking names, and planting explosives. Although the film sports a PG-13 rating (which can be seen as a kiss of death for blood in an action movie, see LOCKOUT for further proof), 3 DAYS TO KILL didn’t need lots of crazy gore flying everywhere. This is more of a James Bond/Jason Bourne type of adrenaline ride, so that description should give you an idea if this is up your alley.

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Hailee Steinfield (recently seen in ENDER’S GAME) does a good job as Ethan’s teenage daughter and doesn’t come off as too cliché (though there are a few sappy montages and typical teenager behavior seen in many other movies). Connie Nelson (the femme fatale in THE ICE HARVEST), despite getting top billing, disappears for a good portion of the story. In the film’s defense, she isn’t really needed much other for a familiar trope we’ve seen in many other stories. You may notice a trend in this review thus far. I keep comparing 3 DAYS TO KILL to other films. This is appropriate enough, because 3 DAYS TO KILL is just an entertaining mash-up of good pieces of other movies. In its own weird way, this is a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster of a PG-13 action film. Normally, I would consider this a bad thing, but there’s such a good entertainment factor to this one. It’s not laugh at how stupid the film is, but laugh along with the film. This is a Luc Besson project and he always injects a self-aware sense of the movie knowing it’s a movie! In this case, it might be the cure for cancer and dealing with the homeless squatters in his apartment or Ethan juggling his dysfunctional family life with his CIA mission. This film never takes itself seriously and focuses on being a fun time at the movie theater.

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On the other side of the coin, Amber Heard is horribly miscast as Vivi. She still looks like a young 20-something and doesn’t come off as remotely convincing. I know I’ve been saying that this movie is ridiculous and makes it clear that it’s just a goofy action flick, but I just couldn’t buy Heard’s CIA assassin or her sexual advances towards Costner (who looks old enough to be her grandpa). The finale is predictable beyond measure, but the same can be said about the rest of the film. This is a good turn-you-brain-off and enjoy the mindless violence (albeit nearly bloodless PG-13 rated mayhem) film. The never-ending sense of humor keeps things very watchable and enjoyable, which was a much welcomed part of the film. I genuinely laughed a lot and a couple of running gags kept cracking me up every single time they popped up.

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The acting is good enough, with the exception of an unconvincing Amber Heard. The violence is silly PG-13 level fun. Kevin Costner does a good job being a badass assassin (of all things) and the film is thoroughly entertaining. It’s far from Luc Besson’s best work (LEON still holds that position and probably will for a long time to come), but it just might be McG’s best effort (for what that’s worth, I still need to re-watch TERMINATOR: SALVATION to make that a definite statement). Those who want a ridiculous and fun action film, would do well to check out 3 DAYS TO KILL. It’s a good watch. I’m surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did and it might just surprise you too.

Grade: B-

LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL (1994)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Scenes of Strong Graphic Violence, and for Language

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Directed by: Luc Besson

Written by: Luc Besson

Starring: Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman, Danny Aiello

Films involving hitmen usually go a certain way. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of fantastic films involving contract killers, but they all seem to have a similar dark tone. One of the many things that separates LEON (both the film and its title character) from his brothers in crime is that this film never feels unrelentingly bleak or gritty. This is a movie where the profession of Leon isn’t seen as a dark brooding plot device, but instead it’s the background for a much bigger story at play, one involving love, loss, and good old-fashioned revenge.

Leon is a ruthless and efficient killer for hire. He’s good at his job, but also very lonely. His one friend in the world is a plant that he nurtures. In the shady apartment building where Leon lives, there is another lonely soul. Her name is Mathilda and she’s a 12-year-old girl from an abusive family. Her one friend in the world is her 4-year-old brother, whom she takes care of more than his real mother. When some corrupt cops come knocking about her father ripping them off, they eliminate the whole family…except for Mathilda, who was out grocery shopping. Leon takes her in and she quickly picks up on what exactly he does for a living. Instead of being repulsed or scared, Mathilda tries to hire the reluctant Leon to help her get revenge against the people who murdered her family in cold blood. A close relationship between the two is born and the corrupt DEA officer who orchestrated the attack on Mathilda’s family begins to suspect that she survived.

The three big names in this film belong to the three characters who take center stage. There aren’t many side characters besides the guy who gives Leon his jobs and the DEA officer’s gang. We primarily focus on Leon (played in a subtle way by Jean Reno) and Mathilda (a very young Natalie Portman in her feature debut). These are two complicated characters that have both been damaged in some way, Leon from the loneliness he’s experienced and Mathilda from the traumatizing event and her family being abusive to her. The two make a perfect fit and even though, Mathilda is not even a teenager yet, we still root for her cause. Natalie Portman shows that she had a knack for acting from the very beginning.

In most cases, a hero is only as good as his villain and Gary Oldman delivers one of the most frightening psychotic presences your ever bound to see. He’s just so good at playing a classical music loving madman, who pops a pill before he indulges in violence. Oldman vanishes from the film completely for a good chunk of it, while we are given time to watch the relationship develop between Leon and Mathilda. When he returns, it’s in a big way and he masterfully gives this villain life.

As far as the cinematography goes, the film is just well-constructed all around. I can imagine that those expecting a rock ’em sock ’em action flick will walk away a bit let-down. LEON is a film that focuses on being a drama with some insane bits of violence (especially in the last act). This is a welcome relief. It also shows that a movie can have explosions and gun-waving anti-heroes and not be a mindless overblown exercise. The movie is gripping and thoroughly entertaining. It never goes too dark and always somehow keeps a straight face even with this ludicrous set-up.

LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL is a masterpiece! It’s one of the best crime movies I’ve seen in my life (right up there with GOODFELLAS) and sports the most likable hitman you’ll ever see (probably the only one too). It deserves every bit of praise that it has received. Also, it should be noted that I watched the director’s cut (which is a full 20 minutes longer than the theatrical version) and from what I’ve read, adds more to the relationship between Leon and Mathilda. If you haven’t seen LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL, give this cut a watch and do it now!

Grade: A+

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