There is a simplicity to many of Jason Statham’s films that a lot of his fans surely appreciate. As an action star, he’s a throwback to the icons of the 70s and 80s, stoic heroes who could wander into a bar, kick a man’s ass for looking at him funny, then silently sit down and finish his drink. The heightened Crank films, and perhaps some of the more insane martial arts sections of The Transporter series, seem to contradict this notion, but make no mistake: Statham is as close as modern audiences are going to get to these stars of old without throwing on a Blu-ray of The Dirty Dozen. His newest film, Safe, feels like a movie ripped from the 70s, with corrupt cops and embattled gangs criss-crossing New York City and Statham and a little girl caught in the middle of it.
Statham plays Luke Wright, “The Big Apple’s hardest cop, once upon a time.” Something went down in his past that got him kicked off the force, and he took a job as an MMA fighter to endure nightly beatings as penance for his misdeeds. But when he fails to take a dive in the film’s opening minutes, Russian gangsters who don’t take kindly to losing a lot of money make Wright’s life a living hell. They leave him alive, but threaten to kill anyone he befriends over the years. So he becomes a hobo, wandering the streets of New York, looking over his shoulder. He’s about to end it all when he meets Mei, a young Chinese girl who has the innate ability to memorize any number she sees. This, of course, has made her very valuable to Chinese gangsters, who have sent her to NYC to keep the books for their syndicate. When a deal between gangs goes south, Mei escapes and Statham protects her from the ruthless thugs who will do anything to get the information in Mei’s head.
The film does some interesting things in the way it brings these two characters together, cross-cutting between Wright and Mei in a way that makes their meeting seem inevitable. The editing is quick and direct, locking these two characters into a relationship in which only the other can help them escape their problems. Writer/director Boaz Yakin (if you’re looking for a quasi-bizarre filmography, check this dude out) brings a determined swagger to the film, fully aware that we’re there for the fight sequences but surprising us with an engaging story before the fists start to fly. And when the brawls do happen, they’re ferocious and – most importantly – they actually move the story forward instead of happening for motiveless reasons.
All that being said, this is still a B-movie. There’s a cheesy post-9/11 subplot and dialogue like, “Luke Wright is a ghost…a very deadly ghost,” and enough sleazy politicians and corrupt cops to fill a half dozen Pacino movies. Safe is also rated R for a reason: Statham isn’t afraid to shoot guys in the head at close range, and though the film shies away from gore, there’s something unexpected and kind of shocking about the way he’s willing to take care of business. He’s heroic, but we’re not quite sure if he’s a hero. In fact, this is the first time since The Bank Job where one of Statham’s films can be categorized as a regular action movie instead of carrying the sometimes-dismissive baggage of being referred to as a “Statham action movie.”
There’s nothing particularly cinematic about the way Safe is depicted. Even its New York City backdrop is hidden for the most part (rumor has it the film was shot in Philadelphia), so we rarely get any real sweeping sense of scope or even the kind of loving city identification Affleck heaps on any of his Boston-set films. But even with that, and the tired concept of a child with a magic ability as the centerpiece, Safe manages to be an entertaining thriller with a few twists that will leave Statham fans satisfied. Until next time…