The Transporter films are unashamedly marketed with the tastes, sophistication, and attention spans of teenage boys in mind. You know exactly what you’re getting going in – which is a million flashy car stunts, at least three overly choreographed and inexplicably topless fight scenes, a throwaway hot girl and a pointless task for world weary, granite jawed guy-who-transports-stuff Jason Statham to take on armed with his trusty product placed car and the only facial expression he knows (Constipated Grit™).
Except that none of this goes towards explaining how Transporter 3 turned out to be a sweeping, talky romance between two damaged souls with a bit of car stuff thrown in as an afterthought. I think one of the reasons I’m so fond of this dubious film is that it’s just so delightful to think they managed to slip this past the eleventy billion teenage boys who went to see it (The film made $108m).
The plot might have ambitions to rise above the ‘something-something-terrorists’ standard, but even on re-watching I couldn’t tell you what it’s actually about. Something to do with the environment? High stakes recycling? Overfishing, something like that? ‘Think global, not local’ hisses the baddie, sounding like a T-Mobile advert for data roaming. Anyway, let’s just say for reasons I literally cannot explain at this juncture, Statham’s Frank Martin finds himself driving frenetically through a number of vaguely Eastern European countries on a job he never wanted in the first place in the company of a sulky, fatalistic, heavily freckled young woman whom he just can’t stand. This is unfortunate because, due to a heavily contrived plot point, they are both wearing explosive bracelets which prevent them from stepping more than 20 metres away from the car, which will only be removed when they reach the specified Eastern European country of the bad guy’s choice.
And then they fall quietly, irrevocably, swooningly in love, challenging gender norms and subverting expectations.
This film is a long way from being actually feminist. It literally couldn’t pass the Bechdel test if it tried – never mind freckled Valentina talking to another woman about something other than a man, there’s no other female characters around for her to talk to at all. I counted two other women in the cast and they both have one line each (though it says a lot about the depressing depiction of women in mainstream cinema when I say it’s oddly refreshing that they’re both carrying out professional jobs with nary a cut-out bikini between them). But although Valentina might be the traditional passive pawn in an all-male power game, in the romantic sub-plot she basically takes on the man’s role – a bit of cheerful objectification here, a terrible chat up line there, some sneaky groping disguised as solicitous comfort and then straight in to bribing her partner into stripping. OK, she makes a pretty horrific kind of man. But it’s more interesting take on relationships than most action films bother to come up with.
I initially thought it must be like that thing about a million monkeys with a million typewriters eventually churning out the complete works of Shakespeare: make enough vacuous action films with bestubbled, stoic heroes and the sultry girls who inexplicably love them, and eventually you’ll come up with something a bit more interesting. But actually there’s probably good reasons this film ended up how it did.
The series was written and produced by French filmaker Luc Besson, who made a string of interesting movies focused on strong, if occasionally scantily clad women, (See Leon, The Fifth Element, and La Femme Nikita) so it’s perhaps not that surprising that there’s a decent stab at a female character. He ‘discovered’ Russian Natalya Rudakova cutting hair, sent her off for acting lessons and plonked her on the film set. Her yoda modelled syntax is horribly stereotypical (’What means, preoccupied?’ she asks) but it’s not actually worse than the rest of the film’s dialogue, which was presumably written in the elegiac, flowing phrases of Besson’s homeland before being fed into Google Translate and delivered uncorrected to the actors’ trailers on the first day of filming. (Sample exchange: ‘Am I in heaven?’ ‘Actually you’re in a bit of the shit’). Valentina might be a massive Russian stereotype in a miniskirt (despite pointing out indignantly she’s actually Ukrainian, a distinction which is probably seems more significant to international audiences now than when this first came out), but the film is meta enough to have more than one character point this out (referencing Dostoevsky in a possible first for action films everywhere) and she’s also defiant, charmingly pessimistic, cheerfully hedonistic and totally unwilling to sit back and accept any of Jason Statham’s stoic hard man bullshit that previous love interests were forced to treat with hushed respect.
So why the change of tone from the first two films, where a rather coyer Qi Shu and then Amber Valletta weren’t getting anywhere near Statham’s buzz-cut charms? This can probably be traced back to Louis Leterrier, director of the second film, who cheerfully (and independently of Besson) outed Frank Martin as the first gay action hero (based on his stoic rejection of poor Amber Valletta: ‘It’s because of who I am’ he mutters, jaw never more granite). ‘If you watch the movie and you know he’s gay, it becomes so much more fun’, Leterrier said, and indeed this is a game which could enliven the most unimaginative of action films (try it with Face Off! Try it with Point Break!). Jason Statham waved it off as a joke, Besson never commented and the director later took back his comments, sort of (‘I watched [the first two movies] and in fact they aren’t that gay’, he said unconvincingly to a reporter) – but even if the suggestion basically amounted to professional fanfiction, it was out there and Hollywood, never the most forward thinking of institutions, clearly wasn’t happy (and we’re sadly still waiting for a big-screen gay action hero as this doesn’t seem to have come to anything yet).
I presume the money men, seeing their mainstream teenage boy audience disappearing twitchily over a hill, sought to remedy this dangerously independent thinking by ordering a reversal of Frank Martin’s monk-like detachment. And although there’s some awful dialogue shoehorned in (‘Ah, you are the gay!’ ‘No, I am not “The Gay”’ – subtle) Besson also went out of his way to accommodate this without compromising the essentially serious and focused Transporter character. Which actually shows a sliver of admirable integrity, given that they could have just made him a lady killing smoothie. But this also means that Valentina essentially has to take on the traditional male seduction role, leaving Frank Martin to frown at her a lot and, in a blow for dubious equal opportunities, actually attempt to get out of sex by claiming to have a headache. (‘Did it ever occur to you I’m not in the mood?’ he growls, as Valentina flings herself at him, undaunted. ’Kiss me’ she demands. It’s like Brief Encounter over a gear stick).
Rom-coms tend to use a shorthand of gender specific attraction: men like women’s physical attributes, women are attracted by personality traits. That’s turned around here, with Valentina briefly entering a diet coke ad to observe a cute reverse striptease as Frank puts on a fresh shirt after yet another half-naked wrestling bout. She’s objectifying his six pack, but true to his nature, Frank never seems that interested in how much thigh she might be showing, rolling a weary eye and tutting when she has the temerity to put her legs up on the dash. Instead, he starts looking interested during Valentina’s bizarre habit of lovingly describing the cuisine of each country they drive through, including her own country’s most famous culinary export (‘Best chicken kiev’ she purrs, giving that trusty staple of Tesco freezer cabinets the best PR it’s got in years). Odd as this is, it’s nice to see conversation driving romance for a change.
Once they get around to actually Doing It there’s some wincingly awful mid-afternoon Spice Channel dialogue plonked in (‘Come on Frank Martin, make playtime for me!’) but this is solidly undercut by the fact that ‘playtime’ consists of some soft focus back seat snogging followed by having a cuddle and watching the sunset while discussing their emotions (‘Of course I don’t know you, we talk about feelings, not knowing’ says Valentina sagely, in a line that would probably help smooth many a young buck’s way through a one night stand).
Even the underwritten baddie is revealed to be just another misunderstood soul floating in this cold and lonely universe – ‘You may be surprised to know I’m a pacifist…but everyone wanted to fight’ he mourns. In this film everyone’s a sensitive blossom, deep down.
There’s just time for a summing up by the grizzled old mentor figure (‘Oh Frank, it’s as I’ve always suspected – you’re a romantic at heart’ he gushes) and a final lovingly described meal from Valentina – ‘Fish stew with tomatoes, onions, a little amount of lavender’ she purrs seductively at Jason, ‘with pink wine, from south.’ There’s another Transporter film in the works, though Frank Martin won’t be in it, and that’s as it should be – where would he go from here? So we leave our relentlessly heterosexual hero looking forward to a nice glass of Rosé with his best girl and his best friend – the way all good action films should end, in my book.
All screen caps © EuropaCorp, via Cinemagia