By Dayne Archer
One of the best things about Safe is how Boaz Yakin, the director of inspirational dramas (Remember the Titans) and one-time scribe of straight-to-video action movies (The Punisher), gives Jason Statham’s character a reason to keep going when he has every reason to jump off the ledge at which we first meet him.
Statham plays Luke Wright, a covert agent turned detective turned garbage collector who moonlights as a prize fighter, whereupon he enrages a band of Russian mobsters by beating the tar out of an opponent on whom their boss placed a hefty bet. The mobsters punish Wright by killing his wife, and they threaten to do the same to anyone with whom he associates, thereby forcing him into a life of solitude on the streets. He gets mugged, then thrown out of a homeless shelter when a bum whom he befriends dies suspiciously. He laughs off his rotten luck in front of a not-so-adoring crowd at a coffee house, after which he is taken into custody and beaten by some cop buddies on whom he had tattled in a past life. However, just when he mulls over heaving himself in the path of an oncoming train, he notices Mei (Catherine Chan), a 12-year-old virtuosic mathematician with an eidetic memory whom the Chinese Triads shanghaied into counting money and keeping their records, being chased by the same men who killed his wife. As it turns out, Mei is something of a walking lottery ticket; she knows the combination to a safe that contains thirty million dollars, an ostentatious sum in which the Russians, the Triads, and even the Mayor (Chris Sarandon) and his ostensibly-harmless chief-of-staff (Anson Mount) have more than a passing interest.
Wright exacts revenge; takes Mei under his wing; then he single-handedly fights the Russians, the Triads, and the Mayor’s goons to protect her. He beats up a bunch of hoodlums in a subway car; he has a shootout with a platoon of Triads in a crowded hotel ballroom; and he has enough chutzpah to take on dozens of Russian gangsters in a dive bar with just his fists and a few dinner plates, some of which he will lodge into their tracheas. To reach the safe, Wright enlists some of his old partners — including Wolf (Robert John Burke), a renegade police captain who’s content to turn a blind eye to whomever pays him the most — to raid a jam-packed casino under which the Triads keep it. The group guns down dozens of Triad lackeys, but old tensions resurface when Wolfe and his accomplices turn against each other to nab themselves a bigger share of the cut. Bullets fly fast and often; bodies fall just as quickly; heads and torsos are riddled with more holes than Swiss cheese; and double crosses and surprises happen aplenty in the sequence, which is the loudest, bloodiest, and hairiest on the film’s Richter scale of carnage par excellence. Here, the film benefits from the expertise of the action genre’s biggest names. Stefan Czapsky captures the scenery and the action with a deft hand, avoiding the shaky camera techniques that plague so many of the films with which Yakin’s magnum opus of mayhem shares the same category. Frédéric Thoraval’s frenetic cuts add to the film’s sense of urgency, and fight coordinators J.J. “Loco” Perry (Warrior, Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing) and Chad Stahelski (The Expendables, Killer Elite) make sure that the hits hurt hard.
Although it offers the relentless action in which Statham specializes, Safe benefits from a script that allows him to exhibit some degree of emotional complexity — after seeing his wife’s body, he even sheds, I kid you not, a tear — and pits him with unique challenges with which he puts his martial artistry to good use. He can punch, kick, and choke the bad guys with the sort of visceral brutality that made Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, and Jean-Claude Van Damme — with whom he’ll appear in the upcoming sequel to The Expendables — into household names, and it’s obvious that he does a lot of his own stunts. Amid the fisticuffs and the gunplay, Statham shares something of a genuine rapport with Chan, the actress with whom he shares the spotlight, who makes the most of her screen time despite being given an absurd role with which to showcase her talents. The same goes for Statham, who broadens his acting portfolio at the same time that he proves just why he’s cinema’s paragon of gratuitous overkill.