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Former 'Prison Break' star Chris Vance takes lead on 'Transporter: The Series'

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TORONTO - Chris Vance didn't have to be asked twice to play ruthless driver for hire Frank Martin in "Transporter: The Series."

As Vance himself asks, "What school boy doesn't want to do that?"

The 41-year-old actor says he feasted on action films as a youngster growing up in England.

"You can't get past the Bond films," says Vance, who considers Sean Connery the best of the Bonds — although he allows that current 007 Daniel Craig "has done a good job."

Vance was interviewed between takes of "Transporter: The Series," which premieres with back-to-back episodes on Friday on HBO Canada. The series was mainly shot in and around Toronto for most of its 12-episode first season. Other exterior scenes were shot in Paris, Berlin and Nice as the series tried to maintain the exotic European look and locales of the original "Transporter" franchise.

Those films were written and produced by Luc Bresson (also an executive producer of the series) and starred Jason Statham as the former Special Forces operative-turned car commando.

They set out Frank Martin's three strict rules of doing business:

1. "The deal is the deal."

2. "No names."

3. "Never open the package."

"I loved what Jason did with the character," says Vance, best known to North American TV audiences as the mysterious James Whistler on "Prison Break." He also starred on the short-lived 2009 Fox series "Mental."

Vance says he's "embracing Frank Martin the way I see him" but throws in the occasional homage to Statham.

That's when he's not roaring around in one of the show's sleek black Audi A8s, punching and kick-boxing his way though one of several fight scenes per episode, or getting the girl in an adults-only HBO way that goes beyond what the "Bond" films could ever show.

"Pure escapism," says Vance. "It's all such fun."

Well, not all of it. Vance was seriously injured two months into the production.

"It was just one of those things," downplays Vance, who says he's suffered "knocks and dents" before. The actor ripped a muscle on his hip rotator.

The accident didn't occur behind the wheel. Professional stunt drivers, brought over from France, do the riskier road work. It happened during a fight scene.

Production was shut down for months while Vance recovered. There were signs, however, that the series had gone off road for other reasons. The original showrunners were gone just two episodes into shooting. Steve Shill ("Deadwood") was brought in for a while before Vance was injured. Shill was gone a few months later.

A third set of showrunners, Tim Lea ("Lie to Me") and Canadian producer-director Brad Turner, eventually steered "Transporter" back onto the road. Lea insists Vance's injury was the main reason for the long production delay.

"He's the primary actor, the face of the show and you really want to make sure he's back in form," says Lea.

Still, Lea and Turner had not just an actor but a broken series on their hands. A lot of the earlier footage had to be scrapped. The decision to go forward without a pilot was questioned. Having Toronto double for the Mediterranean may have been a tax advantage but was proving to be a scenic challenge. The chilly waters of Lake Ontario down by the Scarborough Bluffs don't match well with shots of hill top villas in Nice.

Reports were circulating that the show was "cursed." Not helping were the notes flooding in from the five countries involved — France, Germany, the U.K., the U.S. (where it will be broadcast on cable movie channel Cinemax) and Canada.

What everybody involved was starting to comprehend was that James Bond-level thrills don't come cheap. The original budget was a reported $43 million for 12 episodes, and the first season went months over the original production estimates.

Lea and Turner, therefore, did some creative fine tuning. In order not to burn out their star, Martin became less of a loner, confiding in a savvy and sentimental mechanic (played by Charly Hubner) as well as a former CIA agent who books his missions (Andrea Osvart). Delphine Chaneac ("Splice") and Francois Berleand (the "Transporter" films) also star in the series.

By the time this reporter made a second visit to the set last June, the series was beginning to embrace its Canadian identity. (The opening theme by Rush's Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson helped there too.) A scene was being shot in a hockey arena west of Toronto. Two teams were on the ice when a fight breaks out. Vance, a soccer fan who has never played hockey, is getting tips from his French fight co-ordinator, but also from every Canadian in the crew — including Turner, who is directing on skates.

Vance's Martin now has a fourth rule: "Always pull the sweater over the other guy's head."

Bringing the show back down to its original level — fights, fast cars and fun — seems to have this "Transporter" back on track.

———

Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had an incorrect date for the show's premiere.

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