As Bacon, the small-time scam artist in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Jason Statham was a fellow who worked comically hard to be a hard guy. As Terry Leather in the year's best adult action film, The Bank Job, Statham embodied to just the right point of imperfection the longing to make a killing that could also change your life.
But as Frank Martin, aka The Transporter, Statham is one cool customer - he keeps all his energy coursing beneath the surface. A former Special Forces operative who lives in weird Spartan luxury on the French Mediterranean, Martin offers super-swift automotive transport of goods or people, no questions asked, for the right price. Statham brings an actor's craft and a star personality to the role; he gives a clean performance in the slovenly genre of the espionage cum carnage film. Transporter 3 proves he's overdue for superstardom.
And if you're addicted to action, it will put you in adrenaline-freak heaven.
The director, Olivier Megaton (a friend asked: Is that an auteur or a new Transformer?), as well as Corey Yuen, the martial-arts choreographer, and series creators Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen are themselves savvy pros when it comes to delivering packages. They turn a martial-arts vehicle into a guessing game: How human is this sleek transporter anyway?
They know how to make us root for the transporter - never more so than in Transporter 3. Martin is a man with a code, and his code is strictly pragmatic: "Never change the deal. No names. Never look in the package." In the previous films, we were drawn to him simply because Statham convinced us that there was a line he would not cross and that his conscience was clear. In Transporter 3, he breaks his rules more flagrantly than ever for the sake of his latest package - a Ukrainian beauty named Valentina (Natalya Rudakova) - and, in the process, may prevent an ecological catastrophe.
As Frank races with Valentina from France to Odessa, Transporter 3 contains several chases and fights that outdo anything in the new Bond film. Of course, there are automotive stunts that manage to put you into free-fall without 3-D glasses or IMAX, especially when Frank balances his super-souped-up auto on one side to squeeze between two trucks during a high-speed chase. But the exhilarating conceit of the Transporter movies is that Frank is just as quick on his feet as he is on wheels. Let a mediocre rival steal his car away, and he will sprint through a crowded marketplace and commandeer a bicycle and pedal madly through streets, warehouses and sweatshops to get it back.
His hands are lethal weapons even when he's not in the driver's seat. He operates like a martial artist surgeon, taking apart the competition whether it looms over him en masse or sends out a thug as super-sized as Richard Kiehl's Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me. Although the action is relentless and the pace super-charged, the fights are so ingeniously staged, shot and edited, you can savor Statham's virtuosity, because you can see where each kick, chop and body slam lands.
Statham as an actor receives warm support from Francois Berleand as Tarconi; he lends an ultimate Gallic omniscience to the part of the provincial police detective who, like us, grows fonder of Frank than he probably should. And the extravagantly freckled Rudakova is a gas; with her red hair in a bob and her eyes outlined with blue shadows, she's got a different, far-out look as well as a sort of robust sweetness. She's hysterical when she dangles Frank's keys in front of him and demands "a kees for the kees."
What makes it all work is that Frank remains a self-made hero. He needs little more to quell an angry gang than his dark suit, white shirt and tie; along with any props at hand, they become the Transporter's mighty arsenal. In Transporter 3, the man makes the clothes, and not the other way around.
(Lionsgate) Starring Jason Statham, Natalya Rudakova. Directed by Olivier Megaton. Rated PG-13 for violent action. Time 100 minutes.