In the end, Safe is probably a safer bet as a rental.
In Safe, Jason Statham stars as Luke Wright, a former NYPD cop turned cage fighter, whose world is shattered when a Russian mob kills his family and places him under (a very strange) mandate of living exile: the mob will watch Wright’s every step, and kill anyone he gets close to. The imposed purgatory transforms Wright into an alcoholic vagabond, wandering the streets of NYC in misery and isolation.
Things change for the disgraced cop when he runs across a brilliant young girl named Mei (Catherine Chan), who is being pursued by the same Russian mob that killed Luke’s family – and also a Chinese Triad and squad of corrupt cops that Wright disgraced once upon a time. Luke decides to flip the script on all his foes by getting his hands on Mei first, thereby uncovering the secret that has so many bad men chasing the same little girl. But what Luke doesn’t know is that the mystery locked away inside Mei’s genius mind is not only valuable to the crooks, but high-ranking city officials and other shadowy figures – some of whom are tied to Luke’s sordid past.
Safe is the epitome of a “throwback action film.” The movie plays like some over-the-top, all-in-one-night heist flick resurrected from the late ’80s/early ’90s heyday of testosterone-fueled dude movies. It was both written and directed by Boaz Yakin, the filmmaker best known for the feel-good sports drama, Remember the Titans. Yakin’s filmography is filled with evidence that his directorial skills (see: Titans, Fresh, A Price Above Rubies) are better than his writing skills (From Dusk Till Dawn 2, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, Prince of Persia), and Safe only serves as further evidence of this disparity.
In terms of direction, Safe is a thrilling and well-choreographed mix of old school and new era action movie making – and Statham pulls off the bone-crunching, face-cracking, martial arts sequences with a swagger that makes one nostalgic for the days of Van Damme and Seagal at their best. Statham is also one of the only leading men of today who can spit cringe-worthy one-liners in a somewhat catchy and funny way – a trademark ability of action veterans like Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. In all honesty, without Statham and all the charisma he brings to the table, Safe wouldn’t even be worthy of a theater screen.
…This is largely because the movie is an absolute mess, as far as story and character go. The premise is straightforward (catch the little girl), but Luke Wright, as a protagonist, is so full of holes that even a brief second of time spent analyzing him will yield questions raised, but never answered; contradictions never set straight; choices that are hard to understand, and a backstory that is so convoluted by the time the final twists and so-called “reveals” come around, it thwarts any ability to make sense of this character at all. (Luckily(?), the break-neck pace of the film offers almost no time at all to ponder such matters.)
Equally implausible is the general level of mayhem and destruction that is inflicted upon the face of New York City. In a post-911 era, it becomes impossible not to notice that the same people are running through the streets from high-speed chases to gunfights – causing murders and mass chaos – without being swiftly identified and curtailed by the hand of martial law. Of course, an action movie is supposed to stretch reality in this sense – but Safe manages to over-stretch things, thereby snapping us right back into reality as we question the plausibility of what is occurring on screen.
As far as acting goes Statham carries the show, but gets help from Catherine Chan, who shows definite skill as a young lead – with wit and timing that far exceeds her years. She’s a great foil for Luke – not so much a weepy child in distress, more a cunningly shrewd player in a very dangerous game. Between the two of them, Luke and Mei make for solid protagonists, with a charming odd-pair rapport.
Recognizable faces fill out the supporting cast, including famous character actors like James Hong (Kung Fu Panda) as the menacing leader of the Triad; Reggie Lee (Fast and the Furious) as his ruthless and relentless enforcer; Robert John Burke (Robocop 3) as a corrupt police captain; Chris Sarandon (The Princess Bride) as the seedy mayor of NYC, and Hell on Wheels star Anson Mount as the mayor’s shady bag man, who knows Luke from way back. In fact, Safe plays like a who’s who of ‘seen him somewhere’ faces that come, go and leave little impression beyond the moment in which Statham’s character dispatches them.
In the end, Safe is probably a safer bet as a rental – but for fans of Statham-brand action flicks (The Transporter, Death Race, The Mechanic, Crank) this movie is pretty much in line with the actor’s other work. It ain’t too smart, it ain’t too sophisticated, but it does have its charm and is entertaining enough for what it is: an action-packed, B-movie experience.
Safe is now playing in theaters everywhere. It is Rated R for strong violence throughout, and for language.
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