-By Daniel Eagan

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Evoking the heyday of Hong Kong action films, The Transporter offers outstanding physical stunts, beautiful locations, cryptic characters, and a cringe-worthy plot. Directed in a crisp, no-nonsense style by Corey Yuen, a fixture in Hong Kong films for over two decades, and featuring appealing performances by Jason Statham and Shu Qi, it could be the best martial-arts film in what has been an admittedly weak year.

Statham plays Frank Martin, a retired Special Forces agent who has settled in the south of France to become a freelance getaway driver. Frank operates by three rules: no names, never change the deal, and never look at what he is transporting. Needless to say, he breaks all three when he is asked to drive Lai (Shu Qi), an apparent kidnap victim, to the home of a gangster known as Wall Street (Matt Schulze).

Wall Street makes the mistake of trying to double-cross Frank by blowing up his car, leading to a feud that soon escalates out of control. In the process, Frank rescues Lai, who reveals that the gangster is operating a slave ring with Chinese businessman Kwai (Ric Young). Egged on by Lai and by Tarconi (Fran‡ois Berland), a diffident police detective who knows more than he lets on, Frank sets out to stop Wall Street once and for all.

Stunts in a Corey Yuen film appear at a breathless pace, and entail dazzling variations on a few simple routines. A typical fight involves an intricate series of kicks, punches and spins, all seemingly improvised but actually choreographed to an insistent, throbbing rhythm. The action is closer to acrobatics than fighting, which makes sense considering that Yuen trained in the same Peking Opera troupe as Jackie Chan and Samo Hung.

Statham is physically stiffer than the martial artists Yuen usually directs, but still performs with grace and authority. Unfortunately, Yuen's interests rarely extend beyond stunts. The film's dramatic scenes were shot by 'artistic director' Louis Leterrier, with help by screenwriter and producer Luc Besson. This largely pedestrian material is redeemed somewhat by Berland's world-weary cop and by Shu Qi's effervescent turn as the heroine. The star of some 50 Asian films, Qi tones down her usual style to deliver a performance that is more winsome than calculating.

On the other hand, the villains are no better than cartoons with impenetrable motives. Bad guys obligingly wait in line to attack Statham, and their unwritten code of honor prevents them from killing him, despite plenty of opportunities. But plausibility is never really an issue in this genre. It's the action that counts, and The Transporter delivers that impressively.

-Daniel Eagan

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