Jason Statham is what you might call “a man’s man” – to the point, no nonsense and when he threatens to kill or kick someone’s ass, you know he’s very capable of doing it. Despite his chiseled features and rough and tumble attitude, he’s a bit of an acquired taste, especially for female audiences. (My mom thinks he’s just okay, my dad loves his movies.) Statham’s movies are for that guy who wishes he could be as direct and whip a few asses, barely breaking a sweat. There’s not much originality in the actor’s new flick, Safe, a genre picture that represents the first foray into action for director Boaz Yakin (Fresh, Remember the Titans). Yakin obviously studied a lot of seventies and eighties crime films, hoping to capture the tone of action pictures from an era long gone. The film Safe can most be directly compared to is John Casavettes’ 1980 thriller Gloria and though Statham doesn’t have the acting chops of the far tougher Gena Rowlands, on more than one occasion he surprises, displaying a vulnerability that’s rare for this type of film.
Like Rowlands, Statham takes it upon himself to become the protector of a young child. In this case it’s math genius Mei (Catherine Chan) who a year earlier was abducted by the mob in her native China and shipped to the states because of her incredible skill with numbers. Around that same time, Statham’s cage fighter Luke Wright accidentally killed his ring opponent with one punch, costing the Russian mobsters who bet on him a large chunk of change. Rather than kill Luke, they decide to punish him by murdering his wife, vowing that anyone he befriends with will suffer the same fate, leaving him a broken man and a nomad. Mei has become a pawn in a scheme that involves the Russian and Chinese mobs as well as the city’s mayor, when her path crosses Luke’s during an escape attempt. On the verge of ending his own life, Luke sees a little girl in trouble and decides to intervene, putting himself in conflict with a rogues gallery that includes Chinese gangster James Hong, dirty NYPD Police Captain Robert John Burke, and corrupt mayor Chris Sarandon. The wonderful thing is that these three character actors appropriately play their roles as the cardboard cut-out, genre villians they were written to be.
As expected, the bad guys are not only caught off guard by the rogue element that is Statham, but in time we learn there’s more to him than meets the eye. Much like that horrible monologue an unknown R. Lee Ermey was given to describe the nature of Steven Seagal’s rogue agent in On Deadly Ground, Statham is revealed by a major baddie to be more than just a cage fighter/sanitation worker, but a Jack Bauer type whose job it was to mop up after 9/11. As Ermey so eloquently put in that ridiculous Seagal film, they “are dealing with a professional”, a man skilled at “taking out the trash” so to speak. How wonderful for Mei, who can use all the help she can get as a mob war ignites in a race to recover her and her knowledge of a series of numbers that could lead to thirty million dollars.
One of the best things that Safe has going for it is its sense of immediacy. Clocking in at just over an hour and a half, this film moves at a steady pace with a sense of confidence even though the story is more than a tad generic. First half hour is the set-up, followed by an hour of Statham shooting, maiming or breaking the necks of just about anyone that gets in his way. His character loses that sense of mystery as the story progresses and his backstory slowly revealed, yet the actor gives a focused performance and it’s actually quite believable that his character has been given a new sense of purpose by a little girl he doesn’t even know. Despite some strong work from Chan, it’s unfortunate that she and Statham share little screen-timee together, but she still manages to take the focus off strong character actors like Hong or Joseph Sikora as the head Russian gangster, whenever she shares the screen with them.
Yakin and his action choreographer, former stunt man Chad Stahelski, deserve a lot of credit for crafting not your typical action scenes, some of which appear to have been shot in long takes. They also make great use of a number of New York City locations, even though it’s pretty obvious this film was not entirely shot there. Some CGI was no doubt involved when Statham runs across the roof of a moving subway car on the Manhattan bridge, but there’s a kinetic flow to the gun battles and a reduction of shots in the editing makes the action set-pieces more threatening and realistic. It’s a also a bit of a surprise when, like a samurai, Statham dispatches his enemies a little too quickly. In one major scene it looks as if he’s about to get in one long knock-down, dragged out fight, when his opponent is quickly dispatched so that the story can move on. Not as shocking or game changing as when Indiana Jones shot that Cairo swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Safe is full of some neat surprises like that. Statham’s performance is so cool and measured that he makes a cheesey line like “it’s a miracle I can even walk” work when a villain tells him he’s “got some balls”. Though Safe isn’t a movie of great substance, Yakin has created for Statham a more dimensional character and written a stronger story than Luc Besson did with those Transporter films. It ain’t Shakespeare, but it sure as hell is a fun time at the movies.