Jason Statham: the real James Bond. 

It's been a dreary year at the movies, and recent releases aren't offering much hope. High-concept glop like Changeling and lowest-common-denominator pap like Quantum of Solace are making money, but I suspect they're leaving discerning consumers disappointed. In tough times like these, it's best to seek pleasure in out-of-the-way places, like the second-run theaters or those dimly lit corners of the multiplex that aren't harboring battalions of Four Christmases or Twilight prints.

In such nooks and crannies of film exhibition, the thrills are unexpected and vital. Jonathan Sela's ornate cinematography in Max Payne, Mark Walton's wild vocal performance as a maniacal hamster in Bolt, and the poignant, moving solos by Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens in High School Musical 3 are all recent examples of movie magic that break free from formulaic restraints. Transporter 3, director Olivier Megaton's entry in this underrated action series, joins their ranks by supplying thrills missing from most current action releases.

Once again, Transporter 3 stars Jason Statham as Frank Martin, a fearsome fighter and impeccably stylish chauffeur who makes his living moving sensitive cargo from one location to another. Retired from his profession, Frank now prefers to spend his days on a fishing boat in a Marseilles bay with his comrade, Inspector Tarconi (a droll François Berléand). But good professionals are always in demand whether they like it or not, and one car crash and one liquid-nitrogen bracelet later, Frank is pressed into duty on a trans-European errand that involves the delivery of frisky Valentina (Natalya Rudakova), a jailbait Ukrainian official's daughter.

Because of its Saturday-matinee caper premise, Transporter 3 is flexible and funny; its action sequences are bold, surreal, and fast-paced. And what other action franchise would dare employ the male striptease as a metaphor for character change? Granted, the first striptease is a tactical one, as Frank uses his coat and shirt to subdue a gang of hoodlums in an auto garage. But the second one is both strategic and erotic — when Frank has to disrobe to get his car keys back from Valentina, the scene transforms into a sexy interlude smartly scored by Tricky's "Hell Is Around the Corner" and also reveals Frank's tender side. Throw in an arresting car-train chase climax, spice the expository dialogue with casual remarks about why Russians are so depressing, and you have the unpretentious, throwaway action flick James Bond used to deliver regularly.

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