Now here’s an oddity: A movie that works in spite of a completely stupid screenplay. Jason Statham rampages across New York City killing triad gangsters, Russian mobsters, and corrupt cops in Boaz Yakin’s Safe. This flick is chock full of good old fashioned ‘80s style action with minimal CGI and an emphasis on stunt work and Statham’s innate charisma.
Sylvester Stallone cast Jason Statham to star along a group of ‘80s mainstays for a reason: He’s awesome. Statham is the only contemporary action star making movies for adults. He may occasionally make bad decisions, but I highly doubt you will ever see him trading in his action star status to play a fairy or a baby sitter in a Disney movie. Statham knows his fans and what they want, and he continues to deliver here. In Safe, he wipes out most of the Russian mob, beats down every Chinese male within arms reach, guns down half a dozen corrupt cops, and pistol whips the mayor of New York. I’m not making this up.
Statham plays Luke Wright, a homeless ex-hitman of indeterminate origin who, at the start of the movie, has essentially received the mark of Cain from Russian gangsters. The baddies don’t intend to kill him, just his friends, family, or anyone unfortunate enough to talk to him. Finally ready to commit suicide-by-subway-train, he sees a young Chinese girl being pursued by a group of thugs, and he intervenes. It turns out this isn’t any ordinary girl, however. She’s a mathematical whiz with a code ingrained in her memory. A code that’s of interest to every criminal and bad cop in the Big Apple.
From that point, the chase is on, and the movie hums along nicely with car chases, fist fights, and gun battles occupying nearly every remaining second. Yakin takes a lot of the typical fight sequences we’ve become accustomed to and adds novel elements to them, like Statham using a Chinese gangster as a landing pad from a third story fall. The action is fluid and clear; there’s no shaky-cam Paul Greengrass-lite bullshit going on here.
The movie’s biggest flaw is the dodgy script, which was also written by Yakin. This screenplay envisions a New York divided between corrupt public officials and ravenous gangsters with no shades of gray. Everyone in this movie save Statham and the little girl are anything more than cartoonishly evil. Actual civilians are nothing more than faceless fodder for stray bullets. Yakin may have been going for a gritty, noir-ish take on New York City here, or he may have been attempting to make some sort of bold statement about government corruption in the U.S., but the improbable spiderweb of alliances and betrayals in this movie is all a bit silly when you stop to think about it.
As Safe pushes forward, the plot gets even more ridiculously convoluted and cheesy. When Safe is being propelled forward on its action scenes, everything is fine. The action is great, and Statham is fantastic when all he is has to do is look tough and beat the hell out of faceless bad guys. But on the few occasions where the action dies down the plot holes and failed attempts at eliciting emotion become painfully clear.
The advertising blitz for Safe promised an update of Luc Besson’s The Professional with more bullets and blood. Well, Yakin delivers on white-knuckle action, but fails to bring any heart or warmth to the proceedings. The girl cast here is no Natalie Portman, and Jason Statham is no Jean Reno, either.
Even fantastic actors couldn’t have salvaged the emotional core of this movie, however, because the badass and the girl only get a few brief scenes together. They never really develop a rapport and spend most of the running time sniping at each other. The movie never satisfactorily explains why Statham takes a liking to this girl or she to him, and it never provides an answer for why Statham suddenly decides to hulk-out and start killing every non-Westerner in sight after quietly taking abuse from evil people for years. And by the end, I no longer cared about the answers to these questions.
Safe is still a satisfying action experience. The filmmakers promised relentless action and they delivered on relentless action. The story falls flat, but this flick didn’t need a brilliant story in order to function. I can’t fault for the writer-director for being ambitious. Safe isn’t brilliant, but it’s far better than it needed to be.