I saw “The Transporter” recently, an action-adventure kung fu, things-blow up kind of movie — one of the best examples of the genre I’ve seen actually. The direction by Hong Kong cinema’s Corey Yuen is very slick and the plotting quick and smart; it effortlessly achieves the kind of seamless Eurosophistication which James Bond movies try for and achieve only very rarely. The fight scenes had an almost Jackie Chan level of inventiveness — my favorite was a fight in oil ooze, with everybody slipping and sliding around; our hero, Frank (a very hot Jason Statham) achieves victory by breaking the foot holds off a bicycle and donning them so he can stand while nobody else can. There was also a great scene where the protagonist doffs his shirt in order to wrap his enemies up in it: perhaps the best excuse for getting bare abs on screen I’ve witnessed. In fact, one of the most entertaining parts of the movie is Statham’s demeanor during the fight sequences; he’s always looking around carefully before he bursts into action, so you can almost see the wheels turning in his head as he tries to figure out how he’s going to take out *these* fifteen guys. It makes him seem both dangerous and vulnerable — and really lets you see how much you lose when you saddle your lead with a mask throughout most of the film (on which more in a moment.)

Transporter is also to be lauded for its resolute refusal to cater to action narrative cliches. Despite a couple of feints (a box of photographs, dark references to the past) the film never saddles Frank with a Tragic Backstory; there’s no wife whose express purpose is to be killed to provide our hero with motivation, no unreconciled father figure to add a stupid and easy poignancy. This seems to be the main reason the movie was critically panned — most reviewers whined about the lack of story. I, on the contrary, was almost absurdly grateful. Among other things, the decision to avoid bathetic self-righteous vengeance gave the movie a chance to actually give Frank something akin to characterization — he’s businesslike, fussy bachelor, adverse to mess in a neurotic and endearing way. Not an unfamiliar type, but well-played, and fun to see layered on top of the super-competent martial arts hero schtick.

I also quite liked the female lead, Lai Kei (Shu Qui.) She’s neither a fetishized action heroine nor a wet mop; she doesn’t know karate, but instead gets by on gumption, smarts, computer skills, and the occasional outright falsehood. She totally plays Frank, but retains our sympathy, and certainly isn’t punished for it (as she would be in a James Bond movie). Often in action movies you’re left wondering why (beyond the obvious physical appeal) the two leads would want anything to do with each other, but here the characters are both charismatic and charming; you can totally see why they’d be attracted to each other. And yes, Lai does have an unreconciled father; but the movie is content to just treat him as a big jerk, rather than as, for example, a sexual abuser.

The dialogue is also suprisingly snappy and clever; a discussion of Proust’s qualifications to be a police inspector had me laughing out loud, and the first sex scene between the protagonists (in which Frank seems positively exasperated) is both romantic and extremely funny. The whole movie is just a gem; a criminally underrated classic.

In contrast — I also saw Batman Begins recently, or as much of it as I could stomach. Ugly, whiny, dumb, with some quite decent actors wasted on a wretched script, the whole thing blighted by Liam Neeson’s tiresome and remorseless self-regard. Also, as my wife pointed out, putting ninjas in Tibet is clueless enough to actually border on racism — “Well, gee, it’s all Asia isn’t it? Hyuk hyuk!” The self-actualizing mumbo-jumbo (overcome your fear by dressing as a bat! That makes sense!) is really just embarrassing for everyone. There was a decent movie in there struggling to breathe free (featuring, perhaps, a lot more screentime for the very creepy Scarecrow) but it got buried under stupid New Age philosophy, the exigencies of a monumentally idiotic plot (Asian justice cult dedicated to the mercy killings of civilizations — I mean come on. What ever happened to good old-fashioned world domination? Isn’t that a good enough motivation anymore?), and the inevitable Tragic Backstory. It really makes you appreciate Heath Ledger even more; that he could turn Dark Knight into a decent movie rather than a repetition of this fiasco is an impressive testament to his talent.

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