Frank Martin, aka the Transporter, returns to theaters on Friday in the action sequel The Transporter Refueled. This time around, the ex-special ops man turned dapper high-speed driver and head-basher is played by actor Ed Skrein, replacing beloved longtime series star Jason Statham. It’s a risky move for the scrappy, low-budget franchise that launched Statham as a major action star. Dismissed by most critics at the time, the original trilogy has in its quiet way — or at least, as quiet as movies with so many explosions can be — proven to be as influential on the modern action genre as anything else released in the last decade. From the insane car stunts of the Fast and Furious franchise to the global appeal of the Taken series, The Transporter movies have left their high-octane mark.
At the turn of last century, Statham turned heads in director Guy Ritchie’s British gangster movies Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. But early attempts to make the leap to Hollywood had led to forgettable roles in clunkers such as Ghosts Of Mars and The One. Statham’s manager, Steve Chasman, approached Luc Besson, director of The Professional and The Fifth Element, suggesting that Statham could become the next great action star — with the right project.
Besson agreed and cooked up The Transporter, a movie involving a mysterious former military man living in the south of France who works as a sort of amped-up courier. The first film sees Frank breaking his own rules and opening one of his suspiciously large packages, only to discover a beautiful woman (Shu Qi) inside. He’s immediately embroiled in a human-trafficking plot — as well as some insane action sequences that involve him parachuting onto the backs of trucks, chasing a jet plane with a Lamborghini, and driving his car into (not onto, into) a speeding train.
Hong Kong action master Corey Yuen — a fight choreographer on the original X-Men, among other movies — was hired to direct, but he was exhausted from another project. Most of the actual directing was done by his 26-year-old assistant Louis Leterrier (according to the French helmer, at least — unusually, he’s credited as director on the European release, with Yuen credited in the U.S.)
Watch the original ‘Transporter’ trailer:
Released in October 2002, The Transporter couldn’t have landed at a better time. The success of the original The Fast and The Furious the previous year had given audiences a taste for automotive mayhem, and the martial arts mania from The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was still going strong. The first Transporter is crude and a little generic, and Statham was still finding his feet as a leading man. But there’s a winning sense of silliness to the whole occasion, and the action sequences crackle. (Statham, who has trained in martial arts since childhood, had vowed to always do his own stunts, and it helps the movie immeasurably.)
The film wasn’t a smash in theaters — it took in $44 million worldwide on a $21 million budget — but presumably performed well enough on home video to launch a sequel three years later directed by Leterrier. With a plot similar to the previous year’s Man On Fire, The Transporter 2 sees Frank retired from the transporting game, working as the driver for the son of a wealthy family in Miami. The kid becomes the object of a kidnapping plot by bio-terrorists working for a drug cartel, and Frank, wrongly suspected of colluding with the bad guys, must rescue the boy and clear his name. Bright and lean, it’s probably the best of the series to date, and certainly better than the drab and sluggish Transporter 3, which followed in 2008 with Olivier Megaton (who’d go on to direct the Taken sequels) taking over from Leterrier. Varying quality aside, each Transporter film got progressively more successful: the second took in $85 million worldwide, and the third $104 million, without the budgets ever getting much bigger.
Watch the ‘Transporter 2′ trailer:
The Transporter essentially invented Besson’s brand of modestly-budgeted, Euro-made action movies with international casts and U.S. appeal. It soon paid off in an even bigger way, with the three Liam-Neeson starring Taken films, which were all huge global hits, earning nearly a billion dollars between them. (Besson cowrote the first Taken and his production company has been behind the series.) Last year’s Besson-directed sci-fi action movie Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson, was even bigger, earning close to $500 million for a cost the fraction of most other blockbusters.
The Transporter series was also oddly progressive, in its way. It’s painfully true that the casual racism in the Taken films is also present in Statham’s series; Transporter 2, for instance, opens with an encounter with African-American gang members that leaves a sour taste in the mouth. But the franchise made headlines during the release of Transporter 2 when Leterrier told the LA Times that Frank was “the first gay action movie hero,” saying he introduced a gay subtext to the film to prevent it from becoming “a Steven Seagal kind of movie.” One didn’t really need the director to confirm that the subtext was there — in the first film, Statham wrestles villains shirtless and covered in oil and kisses a man underwater. In the second, he rejects the advances of supermodel Amber Valetta “because of who I am.”
The franchise later tried to walk back these revelations — in the third film, Frank tells a Ukrainian beauty that he is “not the gay.” Still, even that film has an undercurrent of homoeroticism, and Statham (who is straight) made it clear he was comfortable with the idea, admitting to the LA Times that when making the second movie, Leterrier had told him “you will become the gay icon.” We’re still lacking in openly gay action heroes, but Statham’s relaxed attitude towards his on-screen image was refreshingly enlightened for such a macho genre.
The influence of The Transporter series is still very much apparent in more obvious ways. Would the marketing for the Mission: Impossible movies have been sold so directly on Tom Cruise’s daredevil stunts without Statham’s similar pledge? Would British actors, who’ve now been cast as Batman, Superman and Spider-Man, have been given their action-movie chances without Statham banging down the door? And doesn’t this year’s blockbuster Furious 7 — in which Statham embraced his destiny and played the villain — arguably bear more resemblance to The Transporter, with its increasingly elaborate stunts, than it does to the original The Fast and The Furious?
The franchise’s most lasting impact on the genre came with its star. Statham is now 48 and bigger than ever thanks to Furious 7 and Spy, but he might not have had a career without The Transporter. Besson, Leterrier and Yuen knew how to deploy Statham — with his face like the most handsome football hooligan, his style like that of a GQ cover model, and his moves like a badass ballet dancer — in a way that Hollywood didn’t yet. For all of the Transporter films’ flaws, Statham’s star power — a little weary, a little funny — shines through in each of them. Furious 7 aside, he’s not had megahits, but he remains a consistent draw, especially internationally, in a way that few action stars do.
He’s now left the franchise behind and in the hands of Skrein, a former rapper best known for briefly playing Daario Naharis on Game Of Thrones, who certainly seems capable in a fight and looks good in a suit. Whether the franchise can survive without its original Transporter remains to be seen. But as any dedicated fan knows, Frank Martin doesn’t give up easily.
Watch the ‘Transporter Refueled’ trailer: