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Photo by Glenn Watson

“I’m the luckiest director in the world,” says Louis Leterrier, and
you can understand where he’s 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 couldn’t. So one day he called me
into his trailer and said, ‘I’m not going to be able to do it. You have to direct
the movie.’ And I said, ‘No, I can’t. I’ve never done it.’ He said, ‘We have
to do it like this, but we can’t tell Luc or the studio what’s happening or
we’ll 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. Don’t change the terms of the deal. And whatever you do, don’t 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.

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 Besson’s 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 didn’t 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, it’s not going to be The Transporter anymore. It’s going
to be James Bond, and there’s 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.

LA Weekly