BY even the most nitpicky action fan's thrill-me-or-else standards, Frank Martin, the titular transporter in "Transporter 2," possesses just about every attribute on the shoot 'em up movie hero checklist.
In both "Transporter" films, the former British Special Forces commando played by Jason Statham karate-kicks several platoons worth of burly foes into unconsciousness and pilots his speedy German sedan into and out of impossible situations -- he's the Dale Earnhardt of transporting illegal goods, after all. The Transporter's moral uprightness and man of few words mystique, meanwhile, work like catnip on damsels in distress.
To hear it from the films' director, Louis Leterrier, however, the Frank Martin character has certain -- shall we say, identity issues that neither Luc Besson, the writer-director-producer behind the franchise, nor most of the teens and fraternity brothers who comprise its fan base, knows anything about.
The Transporter is gay.
Leterrier said he wove a subtle gay subtext into the movie simply because he could, and, as the Ain't It Cool News followers already know, Martin is a loner and "semi-loser" who eschews the company of the beautiful women he often finds surrounding him.
"I was very afraid of doing a Steven Seagal kind of movie -- very formulaic and predigested," the 32-year-old said. "So I had to find an angle."
"The Transporter's" tagline, "Rules are made to be broken," could just as easily stand in as Leterrier's motto. After all, he went from fetching tea for Besson to taking development meetings at Kate Mantilini within three years.
Since Parisian director Pitof's $85-million flop with "Catwoman" last year, Leterrier has taken over as France's most Hollywood-friendly import -- even if the director still calls himself "an apprentice."
For "Transporter 2," in theaters today, Leterrier worked within action's conventions while putting his own cheeky spin on the genre.
"If you watch the movie and you know he's gay, it becomes so much more fun," Leterrier insisted. "It's so great -- the first gay action movie hero! "After graduating from New York University's film school, Leterrier got his break in the business as a production assistant for Besson on "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc" in 1999.
By 2002, Leterrier was working as Besson's first assistant director. That year, Besson -- who operates almost as a one-man studio in France, packaging deals for up to nine films a year through his EuropaCorp -- wrote and produced "The Transporter" for Hong Kong action expert Corey Yuen to direct.
But when Yuen was late to the production, many of the directing duties fell to Leterrier.
"Corey said, 'You know Louis, I won't be able to do it,' " Leterrier remembered. " 'If Luc finds out, I'm gonna get fired and so are you.' "
So, as "artistic director," Leterrier did location scouting, cast actors, composed shots and co-directed some of the action sequences with Yuen. It still got "A Corey Yuen film" billing.
" 'A Corey Yuen film' sells more tickets around the world than 'A Louis Leterrier film,' " Leterrier noted.
In the film, which is set in Marseilles, France, the man known as the Transporter earns big money as an underworld courier.
He lives by three simple rules: no names, no changes and never open the package. The one time he violates rule No. 3, he finds a beautiful woman (Taiwanese actress Shu Qi) in the trunk of his souped-up BMW. Long story short, Martin must bust up a Chinese immigrant smuggling ring to save her.
Despite a schlocky premise and a meager $15-million budget, the movie was somehow made to look more than the sum of its parts; in particular, the innovative fight sequences (involving Statham's mastery with motor oil, a polo shirt and the front door of a house, respectively) are goofy fun.
"The Transporter" took in just $43 million at the box office but went on to sell 3 million DVDs domestically through strong word of mouth. That was enough to persuade Besson to give Leterrier a solo directing shot -- 2003's "Unleashed," the story of a savage killer (Jet Li) who unexpectedly discovers his humanity with the help of a blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman).
The Besson-written film spent four weeks in the U.S. Top 10 last May. It also helped Leterrier come to important conclusions about their mentor-protege relationship.
"There's two kinds of movies you can do: movies for or with Luc," he said over seafood salad at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills. " 'Unleashed' is a movie I did with him. He said, '
" 'The Transporter' 1 and 2 are the movies I do for Luc -- they're not the kind I would go see or make naturally," Leterrier continued. "You ask Luc, 'How do you want me to do it?' "
Initially reluctant to return for a second "Transporter," Leterrier was looking for an "arty sci-fi action movie" a la "Fight Club." But he agreed to after some friendly coercion by Besson, Statham and Yuen -- and the realization that job offers weren't exactly flooding in. It also helped that Leterrier received "directed by" billing over Yuen -- and a $22-million budget. Yuen and Besson were unavailable for comment.
The sequel finds Martin in Miami chauffeuring the son of an American drug enforcement Czar (Matthew Modine) to and from school. After the boy is kidnapped by a sleazy European crime kingpin, it's up to the Transporter to rescue him -- and save southern Florida from a deadly virus unleashed by South American cocaine dealers.
In other words, the plot takes a back seat to visceral thrills, perhaps explaining the presence of a supermodel super-assassin who wields her machine guns wearing only lingerie and high heels, a chase between a Lamborghini Murciago and a Gulfstream jet, and a bravura fight sequence that has Martin wielding an empty fire hose to devastating effect.
The director achieved high production values with a relatively low budget. But Leterrier laments an unintentionally hilarious scene in which the Transporter's Audi A8 launches through the air, spinning to dislodge a bomb set to detonate on its undercarriage.
"The effects look all right for 1986," he said. "We only had $500,000 to do 300 post-production effects."
The director, married and heterosexual, said the film's gay subtext stood as a subtle challenge to its audience's attitude toward homosexuality.
"Action fans in general are pretty homophobic," he said. "You see these tough guys who say, ' "The Transporter," that's such a great movie!' If they only knew they're really cheering for a new kind of action hero."
As evidence, he mentions a scene in which the drug czar's wife, played by Amber Valetta, makes romantic overtures toward the Transporter. Martin rebuffs her, explaining, "It's because of who I am."
"That's him coming out!" Leterrier exclaims.
Jason Statham, the actor who plays the Transporter, dismisses the director's claims.
"It's just Lou-Lou trying to be funny," Statham said, using his private nickname for Leterrier. "Although he did say, 'In Part 2, you will become the gay icon.' "
While Leterrier calls Besson "a beautiful human being who's like a brother" and credits Besson for giving him his career, Leterrier plans to get a few mainstream American movies under his belt before collaborating with Besson again.
"I've done three action films but that's the pivotal moment," Leterrier said. "Do I want to make money or maintain my artistic integrity?
"I don't want to be Luc's henchman. I want to look for freedom."