Total Recall: Best Luc Besson Productions
With Lockout hitting theaters, we count down the best movies produced (but not directed) by the prolific French filmmaker.
10. Transporter 2
After the explosive conclusion of the first Transporter, producer Luc Besson (who co-wrote both screenplays) took steely-eyed Frank Martin (Jason Statham) on a transatlantic move from France to Miami -- but he didn't take him far enough to escape from trouble. Transporter 2 finds Frank playing chauffeur to a boy whose wealthy father (Matthew Modine) has run afoul of Colombian gangsters, triggering a series of events that includes a kidnapping, a deadly virus, a plane crash, and one death by wine rack. Calling it "cheap, shiny, indefensible junk," Salon's Stephanie Zacharek described the sequel as "a Hot Wheels hot rod encased in a glossy plastic blister pack," before following that dismissal with "But come on -- you know you want it."
After watching Jason Statham steal scenes in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, Besson gave him the lead in The Transporter, a bullet-riddled thriller about Frank Martin, a guy who, well, transports things -- including illegal cargo for some pretty nasty people, no questions asked. Frank's first adventure revolves around a conspiracy to kidnap and "import" a few dozen Chinese people, and although it builds to a predictably loud and ridiculous conclusion, a number of critics still had plenty of fun getting there. As Steven Rea asked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, "It remains to be seen whether Statham can move beyond the crime-land action genre, but then again, who says he has to?"
The film that reinvented Liam Neeson as an action hero, Taken reunited Besson with his screenwriting partner Robert Mark Kamen as well as director Pierre Morel, who helmed District B13 and served as Besson's cinematographer on The Transporter and Unleashed. Neeson stars as a retired CIA agent who has to track down his daughter (Maggie Grace) after she's kidnapped by virgin-hunting black market girl poachers, and took to the part with such bone-crunching panache that his performance elevated what might otherwise have been a standard genre film for critics like Tyler Hanley of the Palo Alto Weekly, who applauded the way "viewers are introduced to a new side of Irish actor Liam Neeson, one that is relentless and likes to hit criminals in the throat -- a lot."
How does Luc Besson do a Western? By co-writing a script about a pair of lovely 19th century Mexican lasses (played by Salma Hayek and PenÚlope Cruz) who decide to team up and become bank robbers in order to pay back the poor farmers who have been ruined by the despicable land baron (Dwight Yoakam) who attacked their fathers. With such a strong premise and talented cast (rounded out by Steve Zahn and Sam Shepard), Bandidas should have been a worldwide smash; as it was, it had to settle for a paltry $18 million gross -- and the affection of critics like Randy Cordova of the Arizona Republic, who called it "Silly, breezy fun, fueled by playful chemistry between its charismatic, appealing stars."
Jet Li is a legend of Chinese cinema, but his career in Hollywood has been somewhat bumpy, to say the least. One high point: Unleashed, which finds him playing Danny, the emotionally stunted prisoner of a vicious loan shark (Bob Hoskins) who uses Danny's formidable fighting skills to mete out punishment to his enemies. Besson -- who wrote the screenplay in addition to serving as producer -- handed the directing reins to Louis Leterrier, whose work in The Transporter served as the bone-crunching prelude to an action movie with a heart to match its roundhouse kick. As Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle put it, "Unleashed is the kind of martial arts movie we would see if Tom Hanks could execute a flying spin kick."