As two police officers receive a call to search for a 12-year old Chinese girl, one of them stereotypically says, “They all look alike to me,” after which Jason Statham suddenly appears to beat him up.
12-year-old Mei (Catherine Chan) is wandering the streets of New York, trying to escape from a group of Russian gangsters. Swooping in to rescue her is Luke Wright (Jason Statham), a former cop turned garbage man, with a shady side as a cage fighter. Yep, he’s a little bit of everything. Luke discovers that Mei’s specialist skill is Maths (she doesn’t like the subject but is smarter than her own teacher), and due to her incredible memory, she’s been brought into the US to work for the Triads as a “counter.” Having been made to memorise a long numerical code she suddenly becomes wanted by the Triads, the Russian mob and even a few a corrupt cops, all of who want in on whatever it is that this code will unlock.
Produced by Lawrence Bender and Kevin Spacey, two names that immediately imply a certain sense of quality, Safe is like a mix of Leon and Mercury Rising, the bulk of which takes place over 24 hours. The film’s set up and the reason Mei is in the US hinges on our acceptance of Triad boss Han (James Hong), and his preference to work with a little girl that has a good memory rather than a computer, because computers leave trails. The opening is pretty well done, almost suggesting that the film may go down a dramatic path as it flits back and forth between Mei and Luke, showing us a series of flashbacks of what happened in their lives before they crossed paths.
After failing to play his part in a rigged cage fight, Statham’s character Luke Wright loses his wife and his home. His life becomes a downward spiral of staying in shelters and drinking. For the first half hour, there’s a level of vulnerability we seldom see from Statham. However, after acquiring a Russian gangster’s wallet, he allows himself to get suited up later on. Without the black tie, one could argue that this is The Transporter during a night off. Statham’s characters are largely all the same and interchangeable; just like in the majority of his films, Jason Statham is simply playing Jason Statham. It’s the usual tough guy role that involves a lot of fighting and shooting, as we witness Luke Wright demonstrating that he’s invincible and an expert aim as he kills absolutely everyone in New York.
A few scenes where Luke needs a moment and appears to be coughing heavily suggests that maybe there was a subplot involving him suffering from something, only to be removed at the last minute. It could have added an extra level of sympathy to his character, but on the whole, at no point do we fear for his safety. It’s also hard to fathom why he would jump on the back of a speeding subway carriage to save a girl he doesn’t even know. “You saved me, I’m paying you back,” Luke tells Mei, which is supposedly the reason why, for catching a glimpse of her in the subway prevents him from wanting to throw himself on the tracks.
After the film establishes who Mei is and what she’s capable of, there isn’t really much for her to do, as she’s merely passed from gangsters, to Luke, to more gangsters. However, to the credit of the film, and newcomer Catherine Chan, she is not portrayed as a whiney, screaming crybaby. Her dialogue and delivery would have you believe that there’s probably someone twice her age trapped in the body of a small girl, as the characters she interacts with treat her and talk to her as if she’s an adult. Learning about her surroundings, she picks up quite quickly what’s going on. Without spoiling what plot there is, early on Mei tells a gangster’s moll that she’s stupid, right before her stupidity gets her in trouble. Though how Mei manages to escape the Russian mob during the film’s opening is just unbelievably silly.
Written and directed by Boaz Yakin, he has co-scripted the likes of The Rookie and that Prince of Persia adaptation, but this is his first time directing an action film. Fights and shootouts are reasonably well staged, with a sequence at a hotel and an underground casino being notable examples. However, during the latter, Luke is joined by a number of cops, led by the corrupt Captain Wolf (Robert John Burke), and the shakey camera and choppy editing makes it difficult to work out what’s happening during the gunfire as it cuts between the multiple characters. Not that we really care if these cops live or die, given how little we know about them and their treatment of Luke earlier in the film. Still, the film wins some points by striving for realism over ‘in-your-face’ CG effects, but it does drag on with the shooting of a lot of nameless nobodies. Interestingly it also shows innocent victims caught up in the bloodshed, needlessly injured or killed.
The film’s one surprise is that it doesn’t build up to an explosive finale. Exposition to wind up loose plot points is literally phoned-in as the audience gets their reason for all the violence during a third act phone call, followed by a rather abrupt end. With its typical shootouts, car crashes and jumping out of windows, Safe is a standard action flick that wouldn’t look at all out of place if it were released some time in the 1980s.
I guess there’s a plethora of these type of films for The Stath to fill, and as long as audiences attend, he’ll keep dishing them out. I’d say he’s fast becoming the Chuck Norris of the new millennium. But just once, I’d like to see him in a romantic comedy… okay, a romantic action comedy… where his girlfriend beats him up for not doing the washing.
Safe opens in the UK on May 4th.