Some folks say that genre films, and action flicks in particular, should have nothing to do with reality. Cartoon physics? Cardboard characterization? Who cares, as long as the movie lives up to the built-in expectations of its genre?
The thing is, these live-action cartoons, while no doubt of great interest to die-hard fans and film scholars, tend to be eminently interchangeable and forgettable as stories. Every summer, I see approximately 80 "pulse-pounding thrill rides" (or maybe it just feels that way). And the only ones I remember are those that have (a) compelling characters and stakes rooted in something faintly akin to reality; or (b) action sequences so outré that they qualify as absurdist pop performance art.
The Transporter Refueled is the fourth entry in a French-made action series that originally sprang from the reality-averse mind of producer Luc Besson, so one expects it to satisfy at least requirement (b). It does, but not nearly often enough to clear the bar set earlier this summer by two better examples of automotive surrealism: Furious 7 and Mad Max: Fury Road. For each deliriously silly action sequence, Refueled offers long scenes of tired genre conventions played straight.
And that's the problem with a surfeit of cartoonish films: Once you've seen a flying car punch holes in three skyscrapers, or a dude named Coma the Doof Warrior rock out with a flame-throwing guitar atop a speeding vehicle, you get a little jaded. It takes more than a succession of creatively choreographed car chases and martial arts battles to satisfy you.
Director Camille Delamarre (Brick Mansions) offers plenty of those, along with a plot of sorts. Once upon a time on the Riviera, four trafficked women (Loan Chabanol, Gabriella Wright, Tatiana Pajkovic and Wenxia Yu) band together to wipe out their brutal pimp. They compare themselves to the Three Musketeers — and Delamarre cuts helpfully to an insert of a copy of Dumas' classic. It's perhaps the film's oddest moment — as if the director were breaking the fourth wall to say, "No worries, viewers, we'll explain everything you might not get."
For their speedy getaway needs, the women hire Frank Martin, the "Transporter," whose business is exactly what his name suggests. Ed Skrein steps into the tricked-out Audi and the role made famous (or at least profitable) by Jason Statham. He brings to it a smarmy, boyish grin but not much else. Providing the personality is Frank's just-retired dad (Ray Stevenson), whom the Musketeers use as leverage to pull the driver into their scheme. Stevenson twinkles his eyes madly, doing his best impression of Sean Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but the father-son bonding subplot remains as half-assed as the Dumas parallel.
Equally sketchy (but more embarrassing) is the handwringing over the women's sad histories. Note to people who make movies about escaped sex slaves: You might not want to portray them as scantily clad seductresses itching to jump into bed with the first father-son pair that assists them. Fury Road took the higher road with a similar premise.
Granted, some of those scanty costumes are vital to the women's elaborate plot. Refueled is most fun when it's purely a caper film, particularly in a thrilling sequence set in a nightclub, where Frank uses filing drawers as weapons and the Musketeers unleash the power of anesthetic gas.
For action aficionados, that and a few other clever, over-the-top set pieces might be worth the admission price — or at least a watch on Netflix. But, absurd as it may be, Refueled isn't absurd enough to compensate for its lack of recognizable human anything. This franchise may not be out of gas, but it's starting to look redundant.