Adrenaline-fueled and mirthfully over-the-top, "The Transporter" is the kind of action movie that winks at the audience in a "we know this is stupid, just have fun" way that big, dumb stunts-and-guns summer blockbusters like "XXX" are sorely lacking.
In "XXX," star Vin Diesel seems to think he's genuinely cooler than cool and director Rob Cohen treats his video-game-fodder plot with laughable seriousness.
But in this kaplewy-and-kung-fu fun-ride, equally tough but tongue-in-cheek star Jason Statham ("Snatch," "The One") and martial arts choreographer-turned director Cory Yuen so clearly revel in their picture's excesses that you can imagine Yuen hollering "Cut," and Statham smiling back at him like a kid on a roller coaster, saying "Let's do that again!"
Buff and fashionably scruffy Statham plays an ex-Special Forces operative with a cool jerk smirk who now makes his living transporting anything and everything -- bank robbers during a getaway, a briefcase full of who-knows-what -- with "no questions asked." He has three rules: 1) Never change the deal, 2) no names, and 3) never look in the package. But when he hears muffled screams coming from the big, squirming duffel bag in the trunk of his black BMW during his latest job, rule No. 3 goes out the window, and out of the bag comes a kidnapped cutie from Hong Kong (talented knockout Shu Qi).
Trying to get her back in the sack to make his delivery proves impossible, and soon the Transporter's Eurotrash clients (in cahoots with the girl's immigrant-smuggling father) are trying to kill them both, with amusing, absurdly amplified action-flick results.
This is the kind of movie in which the trite phrase "It's quiet...too quiet" is followed by a shoulder-launched missile blasting into the gas stove in the hero's kitchen and blowing his converted lighthouse-chateau on the French Mediterranean coast sky high. But not to worry -- he and the girl escaped through an underwater passage in his cellar, where, of course, he keeps two sets of diving gear for just such an eventuality.
The ironically glib Statham is such an irresistibly charming and cunning good-guy thug that even between fight and stunt sequences "The Transporter" loses none of its punch. He chews scenery with aplomb, delights in his friendly rivalry with a local detective (Francois Berleand), who is clearly on to him, and seduces Shu as if he could actually hear the ludicrous romantic overture that swelled over the non-stop hard-rock soundtrack when he first pulled the duct tape from her mouth after letting her out of his trunk.
But the heart of this beast -- produced and co-written by Luc Besson of "La Femme Nikita," "The Professional" and "The Fifth Element" fame -- are the amped-up action set pieces that are Yuen's specialty. The film's opening scene is a whiplash-inducing car chase that distinguishes itself with wild wide-angle lenses, gear-shifting inserts and pauses for capricious comic relief as Statham calmly transports some very green and panicked thieves from a heist gone wrong.
The director takes the time within his staccato style for little indulgences like reaction shots from his sarcastic protagonist. This is especially and refreshingly the case during his wow-packed but unhurried and clearly-photographed fight scenes, like the one in a local bus yard where a drum of motor oil gets spilled, making henchmen lose their footing while Statham (oiled up and too slippery to tackle or grasp) rips the toe-clip pedals off a nearby bicycle so he has traction and the ass-kicking advantage.
As entertainingly exaggerated popcorn-chompers go, "The Transporter" ranks not far behind the all-time action-camp champ like Robert Rodriguez's south-of-the-border shoot-'em-up "Desperado" and John Carpenter's "Escape from New York" and "Big Trouble in Little China."