Im the luckiest director in the world, says Louis Leterrier, and you can understand where hes coming from. In 2002, having worked several times for French über-filmmaker Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Professional) in the capacity of assistant director, the then 29-year-old NYU film school grad was asked if he would consider filling an unusual role that of artistic director on a project co-written and produced by Besson and directed by famed Hong Kong action maestro Corey Yuen. I said, Great, but what does artistic director mean? Leterrier recalls during a recent Los Angeles visit. As it happened, the film was to be made in English, a language Yuen does not speak fluently, and thus someone was needed on set to help him communicate with the actors. Which is where the story might have ended, were it not for a fateful case of jet lag.
Corey was shooting a film prior to ours and his post-production took longer than expected, says Leterrier. So I started prepping the film and casting some of the actors. When Corey finally showed up, he was jet-lagged and exhausted. He started trying to prep the movie, but he couldnt. So one day he called me into his trailer and said, Im not going to be able to do it. You have to direct the movie. And I said, No, I cant. Ive never done it. He said, We have to do it like this, but we cant tell Luc or the studio whats happening or well be fired. We decided to start out doing it his way, with the idea that when Corey felt better, he would take over. But he never did. So thank you, Corey Yuen. (Yuen did, however, continue his hardly negligible duties as fight choreographer.)
That movie turned out to be The Transporter, a svelte thriller about a mysterious professional courier (the wonderfully stoic Jason Statham) who works for the highest bidder and operates according to an ironclad code of conduct: No names. Dont change the terms of the deal. And whatever you do, dont open the package. Released in American theaters with little fanfare in the fall of 2002, it was an unpretentious juggernaut of Saturday-matinee cliffhangers, graced by a comic lightness that buoyed, but never overwhelmed, the action.
The Transporter performed only modestly in theaters (grossing just over $40 million worldwide), but quickly developed an enthusiastic following on home video. It also got Leterrier re-hired by Besson, this time with a full directing credit, for Unleashed (a.k.a. Danny the Dog), an oddball, highly engaging spin on buddy-movie conventions, with Jet Li as a human attack dog and Morgan Freeman as the blind piano tuner who shelters him from the clutches of a Glasgow gangster. Now there is Transporter 2, a welcome end-of-summer surprise that exceeds its predecessor for the sheer exuberance of its shootouts, car chases and bouts of Yuen-staged kung-fu butt-kicking.
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Like the original Transporter, the film is also a lean, efficient action-movie oasis in a desert of bloated-budget Jerry Bruckheimer blockbusters. Not surprisingly, Leterrier is quick to cite an earlier wave of genre entertainments for supplying his and Bessons inspiration. I grew up in the 1980s, on Roger Moore James Bond films, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Romancing the Stone, he says. When Luc and I started working on The Transporter, we thought about these movies and decided we wanted to go back to that era of cinema where it was fun to go to the movies. Movies were what they were. You didnt feel cheated by them. There was suspension of disbelief for an hour and a half, then you returned to your life and that was great.
So Leterrier (now all of 32) is himself something of a throwback in an industry that all too rarely opts for less over more. With Transporter 2, the studio was more involved, he says, and I was afraid we were going to bastardize the thing making the same movie as before, but just bigger. When budget numbers like $40 million and $50 million came up, we said No, this is ridiculous; if we go too big, its not going to be The Transporter anymore. Its going to be James Bond, and theres already a James Bond. Transporter is a matinee kind of movie, and in order to do this we have to be restrained with money and push ourselves creatively to wrack our brains for smarter ideas rather than more expensive ones.
Michael Bay, watch your back.
For Scott Foundas review of Transporter 2, go to Opening This Week.