A film review by Craig J. Koban June 1, 2012

SAFE jjj

2012, R, 94 mins.


Jason Statham: Luke Wright / Catherine Chan: Mei / Robert John Burke: Captain Wolfe / James Hong: Han Jiao / Chris Sarandon: Mayor Tremello /  Reggie Lee: Quan Chang


Written and directed by Boaz Yakin 

There are two types of Jason Statham film entries.  There are the more introspective and compellingly character driven efforts like SNATCH and THE BANK JOB and then there are the Statham-taking-names-and-kicking-holy-ass fare like THE TRANSPORTER and CRANK series, DEATH RACE, and KILLER ELITE.  Those going to see SAFE expecting the former will not be appeased, but the film most undeniably adheres to the later formula.  Statham has traversed between being an A-grade art-house performer and B-movie killing machine throughout his career, but there still remains a level of unpretentious and giddy satisfaction from seeing the perpetually steely-eyed and everlastingly cool tempered British star mow his way through adversary after adversary.  

Statham is pitch perfectly cast as an ex-cop turned MMA cage fighter named Luke Wright, who spends his lonely evenings in the octagon taking out life’s frustrations on fighters that are frankly beneath him.  One fateful day he is ordered to throw a fight against a much weaker opponent, which he inadvertently blows (apparently, one seemingly meager punch thrown on the glass-jawed sap knocked him out, leaving Luke the accidental victor).  The local Russian mafia – enraged by Luke’s failure to take a dive – murders his wife and – gasp! – even threatens his landlady.  Left emotionally ravaged by his wife’s death, Luke forces himself into exile on the streets, living as a penniless tramp and staying away from the mafia, forever tormented by the guilt of his wife’s passing and constantly battling suicidal thoughts.  Yeah, I know, Statham still looks amazingly cut and healthy for a bum, but never mind. 

Luke is saved, so to speak, by the appearance of an 11-year-old Chinese girl named Mei (Catherine Chan) that is being perused one day on a subway by the same Russian mobsters that killed his wife.  Luke decides to defend the poor girl and proceeds to easily kick and punch his way through the thugs, but he soon realizes that Mei is no ordinary young girl.  She’s a limitlessly intelligent math prodigy that has the innate ability to remember complex codes, equations, and numerical sequences with relative ease that has been forced to work as a “counter” for the Chinese mob.  She possesses in her head a priceless and very, very long number that the Triads, Russians, and even members of the NYPD want to get their hands on.  Luke understands that he cannot just let this girl become a pathetic pawn in what could be a brutal three-way bloodbath war between these factions, so he takes it upon himself to protect the girl at all costs and, in the process, perhaps gain some semblance of personal redemption. 



SAFE is not a film that has originality, per se, on its side.  The adult anti-hero befriending a much younger female street girl has echoes of a similar relationship that typified the great LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL, but SAFE makes some very minor, but noticeably augmentations to that very premise.  Almost gone is any hint of subverted sexual tension between man and child, which was a part of Luc Besson’s film, not to mention that Luke is not so much a mentor figure to Mei as he is a traditional father figure to her, not wanting her to get in harm’s way.  The film also takes a very long time to get into the thick of things and get the action really started; it has uneven pacing for its first third and awkwardly skips back and forth in time with expository heavy scenes that are more confusing than revelatory.  The villains in the film are as black and white and simply defined as them come.  The corrupt cop (Robert John Burke), the corrupt mayor (Chris Sarandon), the corrupt Russian mob leader (Sandor Tecsy) and the corrupt Triad leader (James Hong) are not developed much more beyond being selfishly evil.  Granted, Hong has made a career of dependably playing selfishly evil villains in the movies for decades. 

Ultimately, though, we are not really sitting through SAFE expecting stimulating discourse on the human condition; what we want to see is an exhilarating chop-socky orgy of gratuitous trachea-breaking (among other things) carnage that Statham is able to reliably sell with minimal effort or fuss.  Outside of, say, an 80’s era Arnold Schwarzenegger, there arguably has been no other prolific action star that has time and again delivered on what his fans expect of him like Statham.  He impeccably understands that his fans want him to be a stone-cold and unflappable figure of fiery resolve and limitless dexterity and might while amusingly trash talking his way through enemies.  The manner with which Luke mentally berates his prey before hurting them is absurdly delightful at times: ‘I’m gonna do things to you that make me ashamed to look at myself in the mirror” he tells one perp or, my favorite, “When I’m done you won’t be the memory of a memory.”  Nice.

SAFE was written and directed by Boaz Yakin, whose career up until this point has been marked with almost mind-boggling variety.  He made the horribly under-appreciated inner city drama FRESH in 1994, directed the audience-pleasing real-life football drama REMEMBER THE TITANS in 2000 and served as the writer for the forgettable PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME in 2010.  The advertising for SAFE has taken pains to highlight Lawrence Bender as its producer, who also produced many of Quentin Tarantino’s most revered early films.  SAFE does not have as much fun with colorful banter and intriguingly macabre personalities like anything Tarantino has done, but it certainly has a stark immediacy when it comes to its violence.  Yakin has fun with his camera during many of the fistfights, gun battles, and car chases, the latter which, in one sequence, seems innovatively made up of mostly side and rear-view mirror shots.  Yakin’s propulsive; in-your-face style matches Statham’s with a reasonable fluency, although there are instances when the hyperactive cutting makes clarity all but indecipherable. Attention camera: be still!

Nonetheless, SAFE is a safe bet for connoisseurs of Statham’s predilection towards testosterone-induced, rough and rugged, and adrenaline pumping mayhem.  Sure, it may not generate much dramatic interest in the relationship between the girl and her adult protector and smaller, would-be inquisitive moments seem just like filler in-between its scrappy, blood-spewing, and bone-crunching excesses.  Yet, SAFE is an unapologetic engine to see its star do what he does best with a macho and – at times – droll aplomb.  After he decimates a squad of bad guys, Statham looks at all of the eyewitnesses and quietly consoles them: “Don’t lose sleep.  They had it coming.”  


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