Part of the problem with romance in action films is that the heroes are usually interchangeable bland nonentities. . .
Action movies don't usually bother much with romance. The trailer for The Transporter: Refueled certainly doesn't. The hero is cool — sexy women, plural, throw themselves at him, or at least stand near him and things blow up; there are fights and revenge and high production values. Romance is, at best, a secondary concern.
Which is a little disappointing, because the original The Transporter, from 2002, was great in large part because it did that thing that action movies almost never do — it put a believable romance at its center.
Part of the problem with romance in action films is that the heroes are usually interchangeable bland nonentities — Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt in the Mission Impossible films for example has all the charm of a recruiting video — his romances in the second and third films of the franchise were so viscerally awful that the most recent film, Rogue Nation, thankfully dispenses with love altogether.
Frank Martin (Jason Statham) in The Transporter, though, is genuinely likable — in part because Statham and director Corey Yuen take the time to give him a personality. He's a fussy, prissy, anal bachelor. He has strict rules for transporting goods, and, more tellingly, he pedantically explains those rules to all the low-life villains who hire him. When a bank robber he's transporting gets motion sick during the high-speed police chase, Frank insists he vomit outside the car to avoid staining the upholstery. Statham goes through the movie with a look of perpetual low-key irritation at the amateurish messiness of the world. "You are always complaining," female lead Lai (Shu Qi) tells him. "Except when we make love. Then you are silent."
Lai gets a good bit less screen time than Frank, and a portion of that is spent gagged and speechless (she's a bound package that the transporter is hired to transport). Still, even trussed up and mute she's enjoyable to watch; you can see her thinking, and out-thinking, Frank. Lai isn't a strong female character in the usual action–movie sense — she doesn't have amazing martial arts abilities, and doesn't kick anyone's ass. She does lie with a shameless directness, though, which completely short-circuits Frank's ordered defenses. Her seduction of him is priceless: She just basically says I'm going to seduce you now and strips. Frank doesn't look enthusiastic so much as exasperated with her . . . and with himself as he falls for her.
The Transporter isn't a romantic comedy; the relationship between Frank and Lai is firmly secondary to the action stunts. But their chemistry nonetheless sets the tone for the film as a whole — frothy, fun, and without the usual deadly action movie pretense to seriousness. Frank isn't saddled with some sort of tragic backstory. Lai has a crappy relationship with her gangster dad (he kidnapped her and sent her to his confederates in the trunk of Frank's car, after all). But that crappy relationship isn't played as crippling trauma, nor as an opportunity for solemn growth experience. The Transporter doesn't need angst — it has frothy banter .
The frothiness extends to the action sequences too, which are more Jackie Chan than John Woo. The choreography is inventive and fun, and the high point is probably when Frank tips over a barrel or two of oil, and fights a plethora of goons slipping and sliding through the petroleum. A sequence in which he removes his shirt and turns it into an improvised weapon to truss up, strangle, and batter two assailants is also spectacularly ridiculous — not to mention a cheerfully transparent way to show off Statham's very impressive abs.
The silliness extends to the plot as well, much of which doesn't make much sense. We never really find out with any clarity why Lai's father kidnapped her. And why does that cute French police officer (François Berléand) treat Frank as an amusing rapscallion, even though he seems to be aware that the tranporter is engaged in robbery, kidnapping, murder and mayhem?
No one goes to an action movie for mimetic realism, though. You go to see goofy stunts and to be enjoyably distracted for a couple of hours. The Transporter is a great action movie not because it's profound, but because it uses a touch of romantic comedy to embrace the genre's effervescence. It would be nice if The Transporter: Refueled, and other action movies learned that lesson: Car chases and explosions are great, but if you want your movie to be truly lovable, you need to get the love story right.