Never change the deal. Never give names. Never open the package. There’s little in the way of unshakeable tenets to the Luc Besson-scripted Transporter series of action movies, but those were the three declared in its 2002 debut by Jason Statham, who blithely proceeded to break them and a few dozen heads as a festishistically bespoke sub-Bond named Frank Martin. Fast-forward through fourteen years, two sequels and a TV series, and Statham now has bigger franchise fish to fry, so it falls to Ed Skrien, previously seen in the likes of Ill Manors and Game of Thrones, to follow in his well-tailored footsteps. He’s got no less charm or brawn than his Expendable predecessor, but his opportunities to demonstrate both have to be fit in piecemeal by director Camille Delamarre (Brick Mansions) amid a revenge story that feels like less a Refueling than a Reappropriation of tired cliches.
Before you ask: no, Statham does not appear even for a post-credits cameo, though with the French subtitle translating as “Legacy”, no-one would blame you. It might have the over-saturated look of the recent Fast and Furiouses and practically the same score as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but it commits to its reboot status with nary a hint of chronologies and callbacks. Some might cheer for the lack of corporate synergy as an antidote to more successful franchise films, particularly the latest 007 feature, but its dark side is the lack of basic fidelity to what has come before. Thanks to a cold open establishing a gang of snarling Russian mobster villains (headed by Rasha Bukvic) and dogged heroines (Loan Chabanol, Gabriella Wright, Tatiana Pajkovic, Wenxia Yu) sold into his prostitution ring, it’s a full twenty minutes before our Transporter gets to do any kind of, you know, transporting. The sum total of driving stunts and novel action beats (a brawl between rows of filing cabinets, a baddie takedown involving a lifesaver) don’t begin to make up for the inertness and familiarity of the main plot, where nu-Frank is strongarmed into aiding the women’s great escape after they kidnap and poison his ex-military father (Ray Stevenson). Compare this to Statham’s debut, which, while hardly a searing portrayal of human trafficking in its own right, wasted no time establishing the protagonist’s special set of skills, and you’re given all the more reason to check the clock. Nothing is inherently wrong with re-writing a script to suit an existing series, but if that holds true for Refueled – and given the patchwork feel of the story, it’s quite likely – a lot more of it needed to happen.
Oddly, there are whispers in the women’s story of a mainstream self-empowerment saga akin to the brides of Fury Road. Although they desert their male captor and alter their deal with Frank on the fly, their bond will supposedly never yield, and we’re meant to glean this emotionally from the occasional verbal jabs they make at Frank as he laboriously tears up a John Wick-esque nightclub and the Nice streets in their service. Besson and company more often opt for increasingly liminal, baffling references to The Three Musketeers, from badly spoken references to a cutaway of Dumas’ novel literally plonked on the floor of one of the copious grey warehouse environments they run through. Whatever meagre gains happen here are undone when Bukvic’s character demands a line-up of the street workers, and unintentionally reveals how interchangeable the four of them actually are with any of those left behind, regardless of the striking blond Sia bobs they put on before a bank robbery. All for one, one for any.
It’s doubly hard to pay credit for these vague feminist leanings when considering not just the way it throws black women under the bus by gunning them down in the intro (surprise, the studio that brought you Taken still has issues portraying race!), but the way it puffs up Stevenson’s hyper-masculine role. Being a kidnapping victim doesn’t stem his opportunities to be the randy go-getter, from patching a bullet wound to pulling off a sting aboard a private plane, and his reward is a threesome with two of the nigh-anonymous maidens. Other tediously shot scenes have him engage his son in repartee that feels better reserved for randy inner-city solicitors than his own kin, much less the fastidious Transporter we should reasonably expect. There are buried scraps of meta-commentary on action hero machismo, positing Frank Sr as a drum-beater for the good ole days and almost something of a Connery-Bond contrast to Skrien’s sleek vengeance-seeker, but of course, Delamarre lets them aerate in dully staged car conversations in his rush to the perfunctory ending, and the gender politics a tired throwback.
This is purportedly the start in a new trilogy, and unless he tears the roof off as the villain in Deadpool this year, Skrien will probably be back for part two. It’s tough to be excited about the possibilities, though. As an heir apparent to a Louis Leterrier spectacle, it hasn’t an extremely high bar to reach, and yet it still turns the process into a boring bodge job. You could argue that Bond has had a rough time of it lately as well, but at least he works as advertised.