Ducking and diving

Film - Philip Kerr enjoys a boy's action picture that doesn't take itself too seriously

The trouble with most actors is not, as Hitchcock once observed, that they are cattle but that they are actors. I've met lots of actors and when the conversation strays from their chosen specialist subject (that is, themselves), most of them fall asleep, call their agents, cry or go and look in a mirror. The problem is that acting is pretty much all that they have ever done bar the odd bit of table-waiting and prostitution. To this extent at least, actors are like the current generation of professional politicians. What has Tony Blair done apart from being an MP? (And don't say he was a pupil barrister - that's not a job, that's just boot-licking and bag-carrying.) Like our one-trick politicians, few actors have any real experience of life - and the trouble is, it shows. There's hardly a movie actor alive today who has any more character in his or her face than a painting by Beryl Cook. This is especially true of male movie actors.

Now it used to be that movie stars had done something else in life before acting. Clark Gable worked on an oil rig. Burt Lancaster was a circus acrobat. Bogart was two years in the navy. Gary Cooper sold advertising and photographed babies. You could see some experience of real life in their faces; and it meant when they played the part of a priest, or a gangster, you believed in them. But these days, pretty boys go to acting school before they've started shaving. When I look at this current generation of apparently male movie stars, I find it difficult to imagine them playing anything but street hustlers, rent boys, and catamites.

Take, for example, the 28-year-old babyface Leonardo DiCaprio, who is about to star in two big new movies. In one, Gangs of New York, he plays a vicious Irish gang leader and, in the other, Catch Me If You Can, he plays the 17-year-old con artist Frank Abagnale, the youngest man to make the FBI's "most wanted" list. Guess in which picture creamface is more convincing.

Last summer, I was working on an idea for a film with Guy Ritchie. In many ways, it was an exasperating experience. But one thing I do admire about him is the way he casts his films for authenticity rather than resume. Many of his actors are hand-picked from real life and the best of these is Jason Statham; he's the cockney with the Benson & Hedges/Mike Reid voice who played Turkish in Ritchie's second movie, Snatch. Statham's greatest quality in Snatch was that you really believed in him as a small-time hoodlum who was smart enough to know he wasn't a very effective criminal. His streetwise persona was hardly surprising, because prior to his being cast in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Statham was flogging stolen jewellery and dodgy perfume out of a suitcase on Oxford Street. Indeed, the story goes that Statham was such a good hustler that he managed to shift a load of fake gear on to Ritchie himself. Finding he'd been had, Ritchie reportedly asked for his money back and was told to fuck off. But Ritchie was so impressed by Statham's chutzpah that he offered him the part of Bacon in Lock, Stock. If Jason Statham looks like he's spent his life ducking and diving, that's because he has.

I must admit, however, that I was a little less confident at the prospect of Statham doing a full-on Bruce Willis-style action hero in The Transporter. Statham plays ex-Special Forces soldier Frank Martin, who lives the good life on the Cote d'Azur, hiring out himself and his black BMW as a mercenary "transporter", moving goods - drugs, guns, illicit cash, bodies - from one place to another. The story is predictable enough; Frank is double-crossed on a deal to shift a living girl in a bag, and decides to get even with his client. On paper, this looks like nothing special; except that it's all done with tremendous panache and wit of the kind we have grown used to in Jackie Chan pictures, so much so that you have to remind yourself that this is a Brit doing all these stunts and martial arts sequences. Indeed, Statham tackles his role with such confident aplomb that you wonder where he could have learnt this stuff; and, having seen the film, it comes as no surprise to discover that, prior to his schooling in London's Dickensian street theatre, the boy from Sydenham was a member of the British Olympic diving team that went to Seoul in 1988. Indeed, Statham was a member of the national squad for ten years. Which doubtless explains his penchant for gewgaws and cheap jewellery as much as it does his obvious athletic prowess.

Written and produced by Luc Besson, and directed by the martial arts fight choreographer Corey (Kiss of the Dragon) Yuen, this boy's movie is great fun and highly recommended to all those who like an action picture with its tongue in its cheek.

The Transporter (15) is on general release from 17 January

This article first appeared in the 13 January 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Gambling with our future