The Transporter (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #94

Rules are made to be broken.

Country: France & USA
Language: English, French & Mandarin
Runtime: 92 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 11th October 2002 (USA)
UK Release: 17th January 2003
First Seen: DVD, c.2003

Stars
Jason Statham (Snatch., Crank)
Shu Qi (The Storm Riders, The Assassin)
Matt Schulze (Blade II, Fast Five)
François Berléand (Au Revoir Les Enfants, The Chorus)

Directors
Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk, Now You See Me)
Corey Yuen (The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk, DOA: Dead or Alive)

Screenwriters
Luc Besson (Léon, Lucy)
Robert Mark Kamen (The Karate Kid, Taken)

The Story
Frank Martin is “The Transporter”, a driver for hire who moves people and goods, no questions asked. He never looks inside the package… until, on one job, the package moves. Finding a young woman gagged inside, Frank winds up embroiled in her rescue from some very bad men.

Our Hero
Frank Martin, expert driver (he’s the titular transporter after all) and martial artist, as handy with his fists as he is with a steering wheel. Lives by a simple set of rules… which he breaks, because it’s a movie and it needs a plot.

Our Villain
Darren “Wall Street” Bettencourt, an American gangster who initially hires Frank, then tries to kill him — even though he did a good job! And you thought people who left unnecessarily low feedback on eBay were a pain.

Best Supporting Character
Inspector Tarconi, the local police detective who’s on to Frank but can’t prove anything. Comes through in the end, becoming Frank’s ally in the sequels.

Memorable Quote
“Rule #1: never change the deal.” — Frank

Memorable Scene
Oil everywhere + people wanting to fight = ingeniously slippery combat. Seriously, that one scene is the main reason the entire film is here.

Technical Wizardry
Jason Statham did most of his own stunts, fighting, and driving. That included learning martial arts to supplement his kickboxing abilities and, for one sequence, actually hanging off the bottom of a truck with just a wire up his leg for safety.

Letting the Side Down
The trailer showed Frank deflecting a missile with a tea tray. A missile. With a tea tray. It was removed from the final cut because Statham didn’t think audiences would believe it, but c’mon, this is an action movie, and that’s silly-awesome. I mean, deflecting a missile… with a tea tray!

Making of
The oil in the famous fight scene is actually molasses syrup. Apparently it was very sticky, which is kind of the opposite to its purpose in the film, but that’s movie magic for you.

Next time…
Two direct sequels of typically decreasing quality; a spin-off TV series that ran for two seasons; and a reboot movie last year, which went down badly but I quite enjoyed (for what it was). Plus: a mini-empire of similarly-styled Euro-produced English-language action movies masterminded by Luc Besson, the most famous of which is the Taken series.

What the Critics Said
“Post-Ghosts Of Mars, if anyone had suggested that big, bald, brusque Jase could hold his own as an action hero, they’d have been laughed out of town. And while he doesn’t exactly deliver an acting masterclass (his ‘American’ accent doesn’t quite stand up to the rigours of actually opening his mouth and talking), this is all about kicking ass and taking names. […] The spirit of Hong Kong action movies hangs heavily over The Transporter, most notably in the CG-free fight scenes which, thanks to former fight choreographer Yuen, have enough zing and originality to satisfy even Hong Kong aficionados. […] simultaneously the best (the fight scenes) and worst (everything else) action movie of the year. Destined for drunken Friday night rental heaven.” — William Thomas, Empire

Score: 54%

What the Public Say
The Transporter doesn’t hold up as well on a rewatch as I would have hoped. It’s a bit stop-start and the ending didn’t feel as BIG as it should have been. At the same time, it has a couple of outstanding scenes and no review of this film is complete without a reference to and expression of WTF?! about the now infamous oil-slick fight scene. Truly a marvel of film thinking, then perfectly executed. […] The Transporter is exactly the kind of daft film that Hollywood became ashamed of making — and it really shouldn’t have.” — Steve G @ Letterboxd

Verdict

The Transporter is neither big nor clever. In terms of the former, it’s a relatively small-scale, low-key action movie, not some Hollywood extravaganza; and in terms of the latter, it’s a relatively small-scale, low-key action movie, so of course it’s not been pumped full of brains. Instead it’s pumped full of adrenaline, with a brisk running time that serves up impressively choreographed action at a solid rate, with an amenably light tone in between the combat. It also made an action star of Jason “The Stath” Statham, which I’m sure some people would thank it for. It certainly brought down the average age of participants in The Expendables.

#95 is… indestructible.

The Assassin (2015)

aka Cìkè Niè Yǐnniáng

2016 #99
Hou Hsiao-Hsien | 105 mins | Blu-ray | 1.40:1 + 1.85:1 | Taiwan, China, Hong Kong & France / Mandarin | 12

The Assassin is a martial arts drama about Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), a woman trained since childhood to be a highly-skilled assassin. When her emotions lead her to renege on a mission, her master sets a difficult task for Yinniang to prove herself: she must return to her homeland and assassinate its leader, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) — her cousin, to whom she was once betrothed.

The Assassin is also a Palme d’Or nominee, winner of Best Director at Cannes, a BAFTA nominee for Best Film Not in the English Language, and Sight & Sound’s critics’ poll winner for the best film of 2015.

If those paragraphs sound somewhat incompatible, it’s because they kinda are. Has the artier side of the film appreciation world gone genre mad? In short, no. If you take those two paragraphs at face value — martial arts flick vs. Sight & Sound poll-topper — then The Assassin is more befitting of the latter. It’s a slow film, that revels in shots of the countryside or people sat waiting. The backstory is told in infodumps (at least, that’s what we’d flag them as in ‘lesser’ films), while the present narrative comes in dialogue about political intricacies or the looks people give each other at certain times.

So little happens at times that it’s very easy to become disconnected from it. At one point my mind wandered to other films it reminded me of. Ashes of Time, for instance, which was an arthouse-bent martial arts movie that I really liked. Also, oddly enough, The Wolverine. I wondered how and why that film seemed to have been so quickly forgotten, concluding it wasn’t just because it’s not as memorably great as the finest X-Men films, but also because it wasn’t as memorably bad as The Last Stand or X-Men Origins; and therefore that that was pretty unfair, because shouldn’t the fact it’s better (quite a bit better) than those two mean it comes up more often; and— wait, what were we meant to be talking about? Oh yes, this calming scenery shot, which hasn’t ended yet.

The cinematography is certainly pretty — we’re all agreed on that. Framing it in more-or-less Academy ratio (apparently the ratio shifts slightly from shot to shot, but you’d have to be some kind of wunderkind obsessive to even notice that) is an uncommon choice, but not an unprecedented or unattractive one. However, the choice of ratio is brought to our attention by the inclusion of one scene in widescreen, especially as it’s difficult to see what purpose this serves. It’s not a scenery shot or an action sequence, the kind of things that might benefit from a wider canvas, but someone singing a song in flashback. Maybe it’s simply to differentiate that it is a flashback? That seems a pretty shallow reason for such an extravagance as completely switching aspect ratio, though.

For all that, there is some action, but director Hou Hsiao-Hsien has said he’s more concerned about the before and after of a fight than the process itself — it’s about the mood, the tension, the ultimate outcome of winning or losing, rather than the choreography of the combat — so there’s a lot of build-up for very brief bursts of action. That’s certainly not an invalid way to handle it — it’s Leone-esque, in its way — but it does mean anyone looking for the detailed swordplay or fisticuffs you expect of a martial arts film will come away disappointed.

The Assassin is far from your typical martial arts film, and so will appeal to a different kind of viewer. Hou has said it’s more about the spirit and deeper meanings of martial arts than it is the physical combat, and I can only presume that’s true. Besides looking very pretty, and presenting a (barely explained) adjustment in the mentality of one character, it’s difficult to know what to take away from it.

3 out of 5