Despite a lot of shortcomings and undercooked elements, The Transporter Refueled is a mildly entertaining action film.
Smooth-talking and sharp-dressed Frank Martin (Ed Skrein) is the man to call when you need no-questions-asked transportation. Frank serves an elite clientele - wealthy men and women looking for a quick and discrete getaway - and the Transporter requires that he and his customers adhere to a strict set of rules: The deal is the deal; No names; Never open the package; Never make a promise you can't keep; Buckle up. For years, Frank has built a strong word-of-mouth-following, and a small fortune, servicing clients in the south of France - all while managing to avoid lingering complications.
However, when Frank's father, Frank Senior (Ray Stevenson) retires from life as an global sales representative for Evian water, a group of well-organized criminals use the elder Martin to draw the Transporter into a dangerous high-stakes battle with powerful Russian crime lord, Arkady Karasov (Radivoje Bukvic). After fifteen years of abuse and exploitation, Karasov has made dangerous enemies - enemies that, with Frank's help, are enacting swift and ruthless revenge.
Based on Louis Leterrier and Corey Yuen's 2002 cult-hit starring Jason Statham as the titular Transporter, The Transporter Refueled takes the core concept of a highly-skilled getaway driver caught between a personal code of honor and the (often) underhanded requirements of his job - but places a new actor in the driver's seat. In addition to swapping Skrein in for Statham, Refueled is also banking on hope that sophomore filmmaker Camille Delamarre (Brick Mansions) can bring fresh energy to the latest big screen installment - after the Transporter franchise premise was already explored (and stretched thin) in two follow-up films and a full TV series.
A frequent Luc Besson collaborator, Delamarre is no stranger to the Transporter series: previously the director served as an editor on Transporter 3 and years later, provided second-unit directorial work on the aforementioned Transporter: The Series. Unfortunately, whereas Delamarre succeeds with some stylish action set pieces and fun character moments in his Transporter reboot, half-baked villains, cheesy dialogue (with noticeably bad ADR), and overall clumsy execution land Refueled in an underwhelming middle ground: it's a fun enough, albeit brainless, ride that could have been significantly better and falls far short of the original Transporter in every single way imaginable.
In spite of paper-thin villains that are outlined by shameless cliches, the full Refueled narrative is imbued with a few smart twists (even if most viewers will put all the pieces together ahead of time) and a fun dynamic between the film's three leads: Frank Junior, Frank Senior, and the mysterious Anna (Loan Chabanol). Skrein is no substitute for Statham but the younger actor owns his role, presenting his Frank as both a capable brawler and car driver, as well as a vulnerable and principled hero. Ironically, if Refueled had been its own thing, separate from an established franchise and fan-favorite actor, Skrein's character would have made a bigger impact, with more room to differentiate his suit-wearing getaway driver from the cavalcade of similar action heroes within the genre. As he is, Skrein is an adequate substitute who, aside from a few moments that make Frank his own, rarely gets to step out of Statham's shadow.
Fortunately, Skrein's interactions with supporting characters Anna and Frank Senior offer new layers to the titular hero - making the one-man-wrecking-crew slightly more human. While viewers will quickly realize there's more to Frank Senior than meets the eye, charming banter and understated drama between the father and son are two of the best features of Refueled - even if Delamarre makes heavy-handed use of Stevenson within the machinations of the plot.
Conversely, Anna's relationship with Frank is framed around many rote developments in any standard hero/damsel tale. Yet, outside of her attraction to Frank, Anna is a sharp and capable heroine on her own - one that successfully keeps the Transporter on his toes. Anna has all the necessary ingredients to be a noteworthy femme fatale but, sadly, Delamarre's clumsy execution of the Refueled story (and its themes) ultimately squanders much of that potential.
The same can be said for Refueled's villains - one of the most generic and uninspired set of rogues to ever hit movie screens. After a painful introduction set in 1995 (where each actor is de-aged with a cheap wig and facial hair), Delamarre fast-forwards to present day - when the small time criminals have become nondescript mob bosses (complete with their own night clubs, private planes, and luxury yachts). Bukvic's Arkady Karasov gets the most screen time, joined by his prostitute-turned lover, henchwoman, and arm candy Maissa (Noémie Lenoir), but the character's backstory and connection to Frank are both convoluted, leaving nothing but a smarmy Eastern European stereotype as the antagonist to the Transporter. Worst of all, throughout the film, Karasov never takes inventive initiative and is just a passenger to his own misfortune: one who's always one step behind Frank and Anna at every turn, undermining any sense of menace he could have commanded. The best he can offer, as far as obstacles go, is a generic army of meathead thugs for Frank to punch through.
The Transporter Refueled is playing in standard and IMAX theaters - and there's no reason to pay for a premium ticket. Aside from increased audio fidelity - which makes the high-revving car chases slightly more immersive - Delamarre's film does not make use of IMAX screen real estate. The filmmaker includes plenty of engaging, and hyper-stylized getaway sequences (complete with cool slow-motion shots), and one especially entertaining fist fight; that alone should be enough to please action junkies looking for high-octane (though over-the-top) automotive pandemonium.
Still, even the best sequences only riff on ideas that have been executed better (on a bigger scale) before - and lose further car-movie credibility after brief, and downright choppy, shots have been cobbled together through a heavy-handed editing process.
Despite a lot of shortcomings and undercooked elements, The Transporter Refueled is a mildly entertaining action film that, sadly, is made worst by EuropaCorp's attempts to shoe-horn Skrein and a relatively competent action-thriller storyline into The Transporter franchise. Following three films and a TV series, the Transporter frame actually holds Skrein, Delamarre, and the Refueled reboot back from doing something unique - a film that, with a little less desperation and a little more invention, could have developed its own cult-following. After all, The Transporter series got its start by iterating on prior getaway driver movies - rather than relying on a familiar label to sell it.
Viewers who enjoyed the action in prior Transporter movies, and don't mind seeing a different actor behind the wheel, should find enough slick action to sate their appetite for vehicular thrills. Nonetheless, when all is said and done, Refueled amounts to little more than a (more often than not) subpar, and arguably unnecessary, franchise cash grab.
The Transporter Refueled runs 96 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, sexual material, some language, a drug reference and thematic elements. Now playing in 2D and IMAX theaters.
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