'Safe': Softie Statham Still Solid
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
British battering ram Jason Statham shows his sensitive side, and tries on an American accent, in "Safe," an oft-ludicrous but not unengaging action thriller that's at least a partial throwback to old-school B-movies like "Death Wish," not to mention old-school art-house wanna-B's like Cassavetes' "Gloria."
"Safe" is written and directed by Boaz Yakin, whose career as a helmer has been kind of sporadic (he's made only six pictures in 18 years), not to mention all over the map, genre-wise. In any event, this is also kind of a throwback to his own first film, the acclaimed "Fresh" (1994), in which a young chess enthusiast tries to escape a life of crime. In "Safe," Yakin brings another young outsider into underworld danger: Mei, a young Chinese girl with math and memorization abilities that are practically "Rain Man"-esque, is kidnapped by Chinese mobsters and forced to act as a human computer for crime-activity accounting in New York's Chinatown. This character, as you may have inferred, is not played by Statham.
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Statham's character, rather, is Luke Wright, a cage boxer who gets into huge trouble with the Russian mob when he messes up on a directive to throw a fight. Soon we learn there's more to Luke, who's soon paunchy (well, paunchy relative to Statham's usual physical shape, which means he still puts most of the rest of us to shame, shame, shame), smelly, and wandering the streets of New York's underbelly, or what's left of it. He's got nothing to live for, at least so it seems, and his Russian mobster tormenter wonders why he doesn't just off himself: "What are you waiting for?" Well, he's waiting for a shot at redemption, as the gruff singer-songwriter calls it, and of course it's gotta come in the form of little Mei, who, when they meet up, has just escaped from the Russki criminals who have kidnapped her. Because ...
Mei's just been entrusted with a series of numbers: a code that opens a particular (and titular, although the title does in fact have just the obvious double meaning you think it does) safe, and that safe itself holds the key to a scandal that, as they say, could blow the whole city apart. A scandal that, as coincidence would have it, involves Luke, and one of his past lives. These past lives start catching up to him after he rescues Mei from pursuers in a very daring bit of subway-car jumping, followed by a car chase, during which time these two unlikely outcasts get to know each other a little better, as one will in such situations.
As the complications of the script pile up, seemingly needlessly, "Safe" becomes more and more bangingly ludicrous. Yakin's purposefully convoluted scenario also involves an early flashing-backward-and-forward structure that keeps the film from getting on the surest of footings right away. The long-windedness seems particularly gratuitous, given that it's only there to establish that everybody in the movie, aside from little Mei and big Luke, is appallingly corrupt, and lethal, and out to get the two of them. (So, yes, the movie is also a little bit like "The Gauntlet," minus the bus and the nudity. Whew.)
But still, it doesn't stretch out the movie to an unconscionable length -- indeed, the thing is a tight little hour and a half -- and on the whole, the Jason Statham vs. Everybody conceit gets a pretty good workout here. The guy continues to punch, kick, shoot and crash cars in a satisfying, gritty fashion. Little Catherine Chan is fresh and uncloying as put-upon Mei, while Robert John Burke, James Hong, Joe Sikora, Reggie Lee and Chris Sarandon, among others, make an excellent rogues' gallery for Big J to snarl at, and hit, and stuff. I do take issue with the casting of the character who's supposedly the only man in the city who can take Luke Wright out; after the guy gets such a big buildup from the other players, it's a bit of a letdown to see him materialize in the form of Anson Mount. Seriously, Clint Eastwood at his current age would have been more formidable. But you can't have everything.
I imagine there will also be complaints about Statham's not entirely convincing attempt at an American accent. Well, you know, at least he gives it a shot, which is more than you can say for, say, much-bruited authentic thespian such as Michael Caine and Sean Connery.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.