The Transporter: Refueled is stupid, stupid, stupid — and it certainly knows it. You might even chuckle contentedly at its knowing silliness — that’s sort of what this low-rent franchise is here for — but you’ll also miss Jason Statham, whose deadpan self-awareness somehow legitimized the ridiculousness of the previous films. Statham, as some may already know, departed the series over a contract dispute; they wanted to make more movies and pay him less, so he (rightly) bailed. Maybe the faint vestige of his spirit is all that’s needed: The new film gets by to some extent on the good will carried over from the earlier films, and most of that good will was due to the now-absent star.
This time out, mysterious transporter Frank Taylor — he drives secret, high-value merchandise from place to place in his slick Audi, no questions asked — is played by the younger British actor Ed Skrein, who has Statham’s raspy voice but little of his stone-faced presence; he’s a pretty boy, not a bruiser. The story concerns Frank being hired by Anna (Loan Chabanol), a beautiful ex-prostitute who heads a quartet of beautiful prostitutes exacting elaborate, bloody revenge on the men who’ve been exploiting them for years. Anna wants Frank to be a getaway driver, which is not what he does; so to compel him, she kidnaps his father (Ray Stevenson), who has just retired from a job in British intelligence. (Dad’s a loyal, effective spy who taught Frank, a.k.a. Junior, all he knows — but he still somehow manages to get his ass kidnapped twice in this movie.) Soon enough, though, Franks Sr. and Jr. are both in cahoots (and in bed) with Anna and her gang.
Anyway, there’s a scene where Frank (who never carries a gun) beats the shit out of a bunch of guys with a shopping bag. And a scene where he drives his car through a jet bridge and into a passenger terminal at an airport. And an obligatory club scene, where our heroines gyrate on the dance floor and then rob some dirtbag pimps while Frank kicks the shit out of a bunch of goons with, first, a power cable, then a set of wooden drawers, and finally a couple of lead pipes. (And if you thought Jurassic World had a women-running-in-heels problem, wait till you get a load of this one.) There’s also a scene where Frank steps out of his moving car and then kicks the shit out of a bunch of other goons (or maybe they’re the same ones, I honestly couldn’t tell) while the car continues to roll. Oh, oh, and then there’s a scene where he flies a Jet Ski onto the sand and then leaps off it and in through the window of another moving vehicle. And a banking website that will not only transfer millions instantaneously but will also conveniently tell you when someone else has just logged onto your account and where exactly on your evil yacht they’re hiding. As usual, the film somehow disarms you with its obvious, in-your-face stupidity — it makes Furious 7 look like The Hurt Locker. But without the unifying, stone-faced mask of Statham, who somehow managed to combine total commitment with a certain above-it-all charm, it doesn’t really hold together. It feels like a test run for a better Jason Statham movie.
But now, a confession: When the first Transporter movie opened in 2002, I didn’t care for it. The cartoonish (and fake) car high jinks, the idiotic plot, Jason Statham’s glower, the weird combination of sleazy action and postcard-perfect settings — none of it worked for me initially. (Who dumbs down a Bond movie? I kept asking myself. Aren’t they dumb enough?) But the films stuck around, and stuck with me. Something about the film’s casual, Eurotrash silliness, its willingness to throw Proust references in the middle of a harebrained action movie, its very artificiality, started to grow on me; there was nothing else out there quite like it. So much so that I found myself looking forward to the sequels. I’m not sure I’d still call them good movies. But they’re effective, modest little brain-cleansers in a world where both fun movies and serious movies sometimes take themselves way too seriously. So, it’s entirely possible that this latest Transporter film will one day grow on me, too — that Skrein will somehow make the role his, that the lunacy will feel less calculating and more liberating. But until that day, The Transporter: Refueled will feel like a game, if ultimately futile, attempt to carry on a series whose greatest asset has departed.