New reviews: ‘Transporter 3’ and ‘Four Christmases’

Transporter 3 (dir: Olivier Megaton)

As action movie thrillers seem to get more complicated and convoluted with international conspiracies and technological concepts, writer/producer/Euro-action movie entrepreneur Luc Besson’s Transporter franchise is refreshingly simple: a guy is hired to drive a package from one place to another. No names, no explanations, no questions asked. Jason Statham, a former competition diver turned action star, plays driver Frank Martin with his increasingly effective mix of tough guy integrity and emotional unflappability. Statham isn’t much for actorly nuance and it works for the no-nonsense practicality of Frank, a man who takes great pride in his skills and his freedom to apply them as he sees fit.

Frank (Jason Statham) likes to dress well for every job
Frank (Jason Statham) dresses well for every job

After the terrific original film, set on the South coast of France, the filmmakers took it on the road to Florida (a big mistake) and filled it with more CGI effects than rubber on the road and metal-on-metal stunts. It’s back in Europe for the third installment (roaming all over the EU) and back on the road with flamboyant stunt driving and copious collisions between Frank and various gangs of thugs that he takes out single-handedly (which is not to take anything away from his pile-driver legs, the defining tools of this competition diver turned action star). Oh yes, there’s one more twist. Okay, really a gimmick, but it’s a fun one: Frank is shackled with a blinking bracelet bomb that beeps if he goes more the 25 feet from the car and will blow him up (along with a good chunk of real estate) if he roams much farther. “Don’t leave the car!” sounds a bit like “Don’t get out of the boat” from Apocalypse Now, but it’s the kind of complication that defines this genre and creates all sorts of complications with colorful solutions and opportunities for absurd stunts. How do you battle a bad guy on a train if you can’t leave the car? It’s just a matter of flying jump and a little creative parking.

That’s essentially what Transporter 3 is all about. The basic plot, which has something to do with the kidnapping of a Ukrainian party girl (Natalya Rudakova) and a cargo ship loaded with toxic waste (so volatile that it’s still bubbling in the barrels), makes no sense at all. An American mercenary (Robert Knepper of the TV series Prison Break) demands the best driver around to deliver his package, but where? And why? The bad guys have agents seemingly five minutes away from any location, so why outsource the driving to a proven wild card? For all the talk of “the plan,” it just seems like a lot of random instructions that don’t add up to anything other than keeping the girl in motion. And what’s the rush? Frank takes so many detours and stop-offs that you have to wonder whether there was any schedule to begin with.

Natalya Rudakova: this movie's package
Natalya Rudakova as the package

Frank, usually a pretty sharp guy, take up half the movie before it occurs to him that the problem wild child in the passenger seat, resigned to her fate and determined to go out partying, is the real package. Natalya Rudakova is all pouty poses and weary cynicism, so resigned to doom that she refuses to explain the smallest detail that could increase her chances of survival and instead plays the jaded party girl, living recklessly for tomorrow she dies. It’s not a part, it’s a contrivance. She’s cute, looks great in a party dress and throws out plenty of sultry looks from behind her Russian accent. She’s not much of an actress, but then it’s not like the film calls for a performance, just a pretty package to flirt with Frank.

And what’s this road trip to nowhere all about? Who the hell knows? Not the head bad guy, who just keeps making up new destinations. Not the director, Olivier Megaton (yes, that’s really his name), who is more concerned with momentum than destination. And certainly not the screenwriters, who just like to throw up roadblocks and rivals, creating opportunities for more road races and ass whuppings. Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen aren’t exactly wordsmiths when it comes to dialogue (the rhapsodies over restaurant specialties leaves something to be desired as romantic flirtation), but at least have proven themselves capable of decent plotting in the past. Here it’s not about story, it’s about opportunities for stunts, and there are some terrific ones here, most of them impressive enough to forgive the arbitrariness of the script.

The question in my mind isn’t about plot, it’s why did they hire Hong Kong action maestro Corey Yuen to choreograph their fight scenes, only to whip the camera around the set and edit the scenes into confetti? It creates quite an illusion of velocity, but it cheats the audience out of the film’s most impressive special effect, namely Statham’s stiff, steely movements through Yuen’s kinetic action dances. Statham’s piston arms and pile-driver legs become blunt objects with every blow and his distinctive fighting style is much a special effect as the stunt driving. The filmmakers have chosen not to get distracted with such details as plot, so why confuse the action spectacle with so much needless visual clutter?

I review the film for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here.

Four Christmases (dir: Seth Gordon)

The fun-loving, fine-living, blissfully unmarried couple played by Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon are the kind of idealized singles that married folks would dream up for a romantic comedy. Through the course of Four Christmases, as the family-averse Brad and Kate visit every household of their divorced parents (and the siblings, steps, inlaws and other family members gathered there for the holidays), we discover that the confident and lively couple on display is the result of a concerted makeover from misfit childhoods, and they discover one another’s well-hidden pasts.

Merry Christmas, baby: Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn
Merry Christmas, baby: Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn

The families are your usual cartoons of excess and cultural stereotypes. Brad’s dad (Robert Duvall) sneers at his success while enabling Brad’s brothers, a pair of backyard wrestlers with no career aspirations (apart from dreams of pro wrestling), and his mom (Sissy Spacek) is a free-spirit hippy with a young lover. Entering the home of Kate’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) is like entering a cougar den, as Brad discovers when all the ladies (married or not) fawn over him. It’s just all so… bland. And predictable.

Vaughn is in typically glib form, Witherspoon packs plenty of spunk and attitude in her pint-size frame and Sissy Spacek is delightful as Brad’s sweetly lightheaded hippie mom: doting, a little dotty and with a sublimated hostile streak that Brad brings out. The rest of the cast just falls into caricature, including Robert Duvall as Brad’s embittered dad

Seth Gordon, who directed the terrific documentary “King of Kong,” stumbles awkwardly through the slapstick parade of brotherly body slams and sneaky kids and babies spitting up all over the maternally tone-deaf Kate, without offering a single surprise or an authentic emotion along the way. Neither clever nor heartwarming, “Four Christmases” is the coal in the stocking of holiday movies.

My full review is on the P-I here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I’m a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I’ve written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View.

I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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