Movie Review: Transporter Refueled
By Ben Gruchow
September 10, 2015

Gonna have to face it, you're addicted to love.

Relatively early on in The Transporter Refueled, the titular character (Ed Skrein) has escaped from the city police, with his clientele, in a top-of-the-line Audi S8. He decides it’s time for a change of vehicle - reasonable enough, since his current one is slightly dinged from destroying most of the property in the city during said escape. He drives his black, top-of-the-line Audi S8 into a mostly-empty garage and pulls into a parking spot right next to his other car: a dark-gray top-of-the-line Audi S8.

Rather overly vain of him, I think; with the damage he’s caused already, you figure there’s an APB out for any dark-colored Audi S8 on the road. This is before he detonates the old vehicle, just in case the police had any doubts about his capabilities as a lawbreaker (he thoughtfully tosses the old keyfob into a trash can as he drives by, where it also detonates). The scene also inoculates the movie against ridicule; it’s clearly showing us that no matter what we may charge it with, it got there first.

If only there were more scenes like this one, we might have had something. The movies in The Transporter series are really just slick updates of the type of action B-movies that played in grindhouses during the '60s and '70s, and went straight to video in the '80s and '90. The characters are so paper-thin that they often don’t even get names, even the major ones (the Transporter is nominally Frank Martin, but I’m truthfully not sure that it’s ever spoken during the film, at least not all together). The plot is as arbitrary as they come, for the most part: the hero is a chosen one recruited by a mysterious person/people, complications and action sequences ensue, and things are not as they seem.

An arbitrary or simple plot is not necessarily a demerit against an action movie; as BOP’s David Mumpower put it a few weeks ago about the plot of Mad Max: Fury Road: “A group of people drive over there. Then, they drive back.” What you look for is texture within that template - for visual ingenuity, character wrinkles and notes, sharp dialogue, and a kind of truth in storytelling that gives the most ridiculous of concepts some narrative or thematic weight.

The Transporter Refueled does not have these things - or rather, it possesses these things in exactly the wrong ways. The dialogue sticks out in the sense that it’s visibly rough first-draft material; the Transporter’s first line in the movie is a half-formed head-scratcher that sounds more like someone’s wild first pitch at a catchy phrase. The characters stand out, but only in the awkward way in which the darker the skin color is, the more antagonistic the individual; the film’s sole major African-American is given more relative development in order to be depicted as unrepentantly evil, and the character’s ultimate fate is pretty colossally inappropriate and unsettling in its method).

The proceedings are about as mature and sophisticated toward women as you’d expect from something from EuropaCorp, who produced and distributed the movie. Despite the early goings of the plot, which has the female characters in control as part of an attempt to gain revenge on the people who bought and sold them, every major conflict in the film ultimately depends on the Transporter’s driving, fighting, or shooting skills while the women look on. At one point, he has sex with the leader of the group, and the entire point of this plot point - which is not substantiated by previous character beats or interactions - seems to be so that he can let her know that she doesn’t have to choose “this life” if she doesn’t want to.

For a scenario that started out with said woman being sold into prostitution and attempting to reclaim her dignity, that’s pretty embarrassing; I have a feeling it’s too much to hope for that he’s advising her to seek therapy and support instead. The other women involved don’t even get the benefit of that advice; instead, they fall for the Transporter’s father (Ray Stevenson) and are contented by mere intercourse.

Visually, the movie is spotty; there are flashes of sharp and attractive composition and blocking, but more often the atmosphere and logic of the movie’s look is cheap and small, with static camera angles and sloppy, frenetic editing befitting of a Transporter spinoff TV series but not a movie produced by the guy who once gave us The Fifth Element (and to a lesser extent Lucy).

The martial-arts sequences are dismal; Jason Statham played the original Frank Martin in the films, and his real-life martial arts experience gave the combat in the first three Transporter films a photogenic type of legitimacy (even if it was still plainly choreographed, and even if the scenes themselves were still choppy and overedited). Skrein does not appear to possess Statham’s physical skill; at no point during the proceedings does it seem like he’s doing anything other than executing some rather lethargic moves. This movie isn’t the first go-round for choreographer Alain Figlarz, but it’s a long way from Corey Yuen, who directed the first film and choreographed the martial arts in the first three.

Look, I know I said that this is really just a riff on a pulpy B-movie from the '70s, right? Shouldn’t that excuse the tedium of the dialogue, the transparency of the male characters and vapor-like mist of the female characters, the clumsily-assembled action, the otherwise anonymous framing? Were the earlier Transporter films really any better? Possibly not, but that’s sort of the point. In a cinematic environment where the spirit of pulpy action cinema can result in something like The Man from UNCLE or Furious 7 or Rogue Nation - all of which are lively, colorful, and fun to varying degrees - The Transporter Refueled seems hopelessly square and leaden. Haven’t we moved beyond this kind of thing?

It’s fitting that Statham declined to appear in this, and instead showed up earlier this summer in Spy, which took the stuffing out of everything Refueled tries to evoke with a straight face: the implausible character biography, the impossible stunts, the inner monologue, and the bad guys (Rose Byrne has done the genre the courtesy of undermining any serious attempt at an intimidating European villain for at least the next several years). He must have seen something that the filmmakers did not…or, more likely, failed to see something that the filmmakers thought they did.