There’s tons of sizzle but precious little steak in “Transporter 2,” the garish, goofy perpetual-motion sequel to the Luc Besson-inspired 2002 picture that introduced Jason Statham as Frank Martin, a preternaturally cool, dispassionate ex-Special Forces fellow who now keeps himself in comfort by hiring himself out as the most capable of mercenary drivers for bank robbers and other folks in need of quick, efficient, close-lipped transport in dangerous circumstances. Afficionados of the first movie, with its absurd fights, squealing tires and hair-breadth escapes amidst the shards of a muddled kidnapping plot, will probably enjoy this retread, which also involves a kidnapping and all the other accoutrements of the original, raised–amazingly, given the pumped-up nature of its predecessor–several notches. But in this second lap the brainless busyness and gaudy excess amounts to utter overkill, especially in a big finale–involving a kick-boxing match in a private plane plummeting into the sea after its pilot has been shot–that isn’t just ludicrous (most everything here is) but poorly staged (which is unusual), an absolute chaos of flying limbs inside a claustrophobic cabin whirling and careening around while whooshing waves flood the space. Even in action movies, one should be able to tell what’s going on, and here the present one stumbles.
In this installment, moreover, Martin continues the transformation from amoral black-suited soldier-for-hire to externally stern but internally squishy-soft battler for good that began in the first “Transporter.” He’s now subbing for an unnamed friend as a Miami-based chauffeur for little Jack Billings (Hunter Clary), the cute-as-a-button son of government anti-drug czar (Matthew Modine) and his estranged wife Audrey (Amber Valletta). Frank has not only bonded with Jack, but obviously commiserates with Audrey, a good mother whom her husband neglects (along with their son) because of his political responsibilities. When the boy is kidnapped during a visit to a doctor’s office by leggy villainous Lola (Kate Nauta)–the first excuse for a multi-vehicle car-crash episode–Frank takes it upon himself to rescue the lad; but it turns out that snatching the kid was but a device to infect his father with a terrible virus that he will then pass on to all the other major drug-fighters in the hemisphere, a plot hatched by Lola’s nefarious employer/lover, the suave but callous Gianni (Alessandro Gassman). So Martin must then turn his attention to securing the antidote and in effect saving the world, operating solo against a small army of bad-guys. He must also come to terms with his undeniable attraction to Audrey. In all this he has only one ally he can trust: Inspector Tarconi (Francois Berleand), his old adversary from the first picture but now a bosom buddy, who just happens to be vacationing in Florida at the time and conveniently secures access to law enforcement files to get needed information for Frank.
Statham gets through all this with considerable physical dexterity, even though the numerous fights in which he engages grow increasingly tiresome as the plot grinds on and the auto tricks he practices become ever more absurd (the way in which he removes a bomb about to explode from the underside of his car is, quite literally, hilariously over-the-top); he also manages throughout all the mayhem to maintain an expression that amounts to nothing more than glowering and steely-eyed determination, which is a considerable, though dubious, accomplishment. One has to feel for poor Modine, who’s reduced to a cardboard bigwig, and for Gassman and Nauta, who are typical Eurotrash cartoon nasties; but Valletta and Clary aren’t quite as insufferable as they might have been, and Berleand recaptures the rumpled charm of his initial outing as the blase inspector. But “Transporter 2” isn’t as much about acting as it is about stunt work and special effects, and despite the sloppiness of the final fight-in-the-air, most viewers who salivate over such things (or about gleaming, super-powered autos) may find that it offers enough to satisfy them. And if director Louis Leterrier shows no aptitude for making characters anything more than cardboard cutouts, he does prove a mostly efficient traffic organizer. He’s been ably abetted by cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen, who–apart from that misguided final fight scene, again–has shot the colorful footage with slick assurance, and editors Christine Lucas-Navarro and Vincent Tabaillon, who have kept the action fairly clear overall and allow few wasted minutes.
So “Transporter 2” will probably be enough for those who want nothing more than pointless speed and empty action, a flashy surface beneath which nothing lurks. But others will more rightly feel that it merely proves the old adage about all that glitters. Among action flicks, this is–like its predecessor–fools’ gold.