Stripped and chopped for parts, the Transporter trilogy could be reassembled into a single solid (and undoubtedly short) action movie. The first one had a fight scene where Jason Statham whirled around poles and through grease like a lethal Magic Mike; the second featured cinema’s first aerial undercarriage bomb disposal; the third contrived a reason to always keep Statham within 75 feet of the franchise’s real star, an Audi automobile. As a whole, however, the three movies were a shoddy refurbishing of American gearhead actioneers into Euro-thriller jalopies. Returning sans Statham, avec everything else, The Transporter: Refueled makes a poor case for rescuing this series from the scrapheap.
Though the franchise has been kept on dialysis via a TV series for a couple years, this is the first “Transporter” property to be produced by series-creator Luc Besson since 2008’s Transporter 3. That same year, Besson unleashed the Taken franchise on the world, a once-promising series that’s become the most profitable alignment of Franco-American interests since the War of Independence.
Besson’s Europacorp production company, in addition to funding Tommy Lee Jones’ directorial career, has made a number of legitimately enjoyable dumb-fun action movies, including the daffy Lockout, and last year’s megahit Lucy. What those two have in common is that they’re neither adaptations, nor sequels to other Europacorp movies, which tend to get dumber and less fun in reiteration or translation. When Besson and company happen upon a winning formula, they seemingly can’t stop themselves from driving it into the ground.
Seven years distanced from the last “Transporter” movie, Refueled struggles to hit established marks. It stars a rakish Brit who dresses like a limo driver, rolls in a German car, and fights as a wuxia/MMA hybrid. This is the extent of the personality to be found in the “Transporter” series, and its hero, Frank Martin. The remainder of this fourth entry comprises the same hodgepodge of Besson plot points that the Taken movies once borrowed, and have now returned to their original owner. Eastern European gangsters, human trafficking schemes, chases that transition from French cobblestones to seafaring yachts: they’re all here, fitted and tailored to the same model of character and action movie Statham is better off lampooning these days than revisiting.
His gain is our loss. There’s a Statham-shaped hole under the hood of The Transporter: Refueled. More memorable for his accoutrement than anything else, Frank Martin was better as a vehicle for Statham’s charisma than a character in his own right. Living by a three-part code of Transportation (guidelines that are broken more often than the joints of Frank’s enemies), Martin’s high-octane daredevilry was always tempered by Statham’s cucumber cool. His dry confidence made absurd fistfights and shootouts an annoyance akin to bad traffic. The joke for Frank, Statham, and the audience, was that they were all better than this.
Stepping into Frank’s suit and tie is Ed Skrein, a younger actor for a younger version of the character. This gets a tad confusing, considering that The Transporter: Refueled – despite being the start of a planned prequel trilogy, and being set in 2010 – prominently features modern Apple products and tablet devices. “Technology moves so quickly,” Skrein’s Frank says of his smartphone-assisted Audi, the car captured from every angle in fetishistic detail during the opening credits. “Pretty soon, it’ll drive itself, and they won’t need guys like me.”
“Soon” turns out to be much sooner than he thinks: Skrein’s more impudent take on the character is meant to stand in boyish contrast to papa-partner Frank Martin Sr. (Ray Stevenson, enjoying himself), who winds up the hostage in a kidnapping plot. In practice, the brasher notes just make Skrein and his Frank look overly self-satisfied with the paltry thrills The Transporter: Refueled has to offer.
As shot by Brick Mansions director Camille Delamarre, Refueled’s setpieces are a minor improvement on Transporter 3 and Taken 3 in terms of clarity, if nothing else. There’s a car chase through an airport, and an all-too brief fight set in the cramped space between two walls of filing cabinets. A neat bit of driving around a circle of fire hydrants rounds out the list of memorable moments. In between, it’s more of the same that Besson’s been offering for a decade. Anyone willing to admit they saw the Jimmy Fallon-starring Taxi will express déjà vu when a quartet of hot-to-trot beauties enlist Frank in their war against Russian sex traffickers.
Female characters have, in two movies previous, been the “package” Frank is meant to transport, an idea The Transporter: Refueled tries to update by having Loan Chabanol’s vengeful Anna lead a crusade against her lifelong pimp. But, this being Besson’s lad mag vision of empowerment, said crusade requires that the ladies plan their heists in cocktail dresses and lingerie, then have an occasional make out session with one another during robberies just…because. The conceit is too comically forced to ever titillate as intended; though the stilettoed avengers model themselves after the Three Musketeers, when riding in Frank’s Audi, each adorned with a blonde wig, the fatales look like a clown car of Sia impersonators.
“I’ve seen a lot of bad things, but prostitution, where death is your only escape, might be the worst,” Frank Sr. says late in the film, a note of sympathy for these women Delamarre’s leering camera doesn’t share. At least the previous “Transporters” were equal opportunity oglers. Statham’s well-oiled core, the most impressive six-cylinder engine in the franchise, is nowhere to be found on the chronically clothed Skrein. The Transporter: Refueled is a bland, pointless revival, but in this last offense, it forgets one of Frank’s rules for success: no changing the deal.
Unless you're after a shiftless junk pile of action movie spare parts, follow The Transporter: Refueled's advice, and don't open this package.