So many amazingly absurd things occur during the course of “The Transporter: Refueled” that it’s almost easy to forget that the basic idea driving this fourth installment — namely, to reboot the franchise without its reason for existing in the first place: star Jason Statham — is itself nonsensical. Credit that to Bill Collage, Adam Cooper, and Luc Besson (the series’ godfather), whose script is one of those awe-inspiringly dim-witted creations that’s compelled to amplify its insanity at every turn. It’s the kind of movie that has its hero, Frank Martin (Ed Skrein), drive a speeding jet ski up onto a beach and, while it’s still moving, leaping off it and into the window of an SUV that’s racing by — feet first! And one that casts Frank’s dad, Frank Sr. (Ray Stevenson), as a covert espionage operative, only to then have the supposed super-spy get kidnapped by bad guys on not one, but two different, equally embarrassing occasions.
Part of what makes such twaddle amusing is that the film doesn’t treat its material as comedic, instead affecting a grim stylishness that’s typified by loving pans around suave suit-and-tie Frank and his sleek black and grey Audi S8 cars. Frank is a wheelman for hire who operates by a code: no questions about names, backgrounds, or the nature of the packages he’s transporting; no changing the deal once it’s agreed upon; and punctuality at all times. These regulations immediately go out the window in ‘Refueled,’ as Frank’s passengers repeatedly point out, but such narrative “rule breaking” is far less pronounced than the sheer ridiculousness on display, beginning with the fact that, after a brief 1995 prologue, the film sets its action in 2010 for absolutely no good reason.
Camille Delamarre’s direction is marked by the sort of spastic editing for combat scenes, slow-motion shots of cars squealing around corners, and CG-enhanced zooms into Frank’s intense eyes that have long defined the franchise. Yet while its predecessors were known for their own over-the-top moments — such as Frank knocking a bomb off his car’s undercarriage by making his sedan perform a mid-air twist so it can graze a suspended construction hook just right in “The Transporter 2” — there’s something almost surreal about the incessant stupidity in ‘Refueled.’ That’s never more apparent than when the girlfriend of evil Russian pimp and crime lord Karasov (Radivoje Bukvic) watches security camera footage of a heist perpetrated by three skinny women in identical black dresses and blonde hair, and she informatively states, “They all look the same. You cannot tell them apart.” Better still, she follows that up by later seeing the same women, now in new dresses, on another security monitor, and helpfully commenting, “Same girls. Different outfits.”
That trio hews to the series’ template for its females — rail-thin and platinum coiffed (albeit, in this instance, via wigs) — and they’re the catalyst for the film’s narrative, which involves their efforts to escape being prostitutes for Karasov by murdering his accountant, stealing his partners’ money, and carrying out a blackmail scheme that’s as wacko as Frank driving his Audi through an airport terminal. Suffice it to say, the storytelling in ‘Refueled’ isn’t its strong suit, as twists pile up at a rate that makes much of the proceedings incomprehensible, and characters develop newfound emotions and outlooks seemingly at random. And then there’s a bewildering running plot thread in which Frank and the leader of the girls, Anna (Loan Chabanol), quote each other passages from “The Three Musketeers,” which is such a favorite of these former-prostitutes-turned-highly-trained-covert-operatives that they even keep a paperback copy of it lying around their warehouse HQ.
Amidst this goofiness, Skrein proves a serviceable Statham replacement, capable of executing elaborate martial arts-inspired fight moves, glowering behind the wheel of his car, and generally acting like a cold, detached thug-for-hire who, deep down, has a heart of gold. Frank has been conceived as little more than a dull, one-note hero, and thus Skrein’s monotonous turn is ultimately no better or worse than it possibly could be. At least ‘Refueled’ recognizes that the only way to make its protagonist interesting is to surround him with cartoon lunacy. And to that end, it’s Stevenson who ultimately comes out best in this C-grade B-movie, behaving like a comic-book 007-style lothario whether in danger, at his son’s side, or in bed with two satisfied beauties and — upon being told by killjoy Frank that it’s time to go — replying “Really?!?” [C-]