Safe: Film Review

Despite some impressively gritty street-level action, "Safe" plays it far too safe.

Jason Statham stars in director-writer Boaz Yakin's fast-moving New York gangland thriller.

LONDON -- The former athlete and model whose relatively short action-hero career has generated more than a billion dollars of box office business, Jason Statham sticks within his narrow but highly marketable range in this fast-moving New York gangland thriller. Though Safe initially seems a little darker and more thoughtful than the British star’s previous comic-book escapades in Death Race, The Expendables or the Transporter trilogy, it ultimately reverts to testosterone-heavy formula. Millions of loyal, undemanding fans who have already made Statham a one-man action franchise will doubtless flock to make his latest star vehicle a solid multiplex hit, but anyone expecting him to diversify into more complex material in the tradition of Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone should sit this one out.

Writer-director Boaz Yakin has a spotty track record punctuated by the odd commercial hit, notably his 2000 sports drama Remember the Titans. Working with Tarantino’s long-time producer Lawrence Bender, Yakin fills Safe with well-choreographed action set-pieces, stock characters and painfully clunky dialogue. Statham plays a variation on his usual tight-lipped tough-guy persona, barely stretching his dramatic chops beyond a half-hearted stab at a non-specific American accent, and even this he appears to forget intermittently.

Luke Wright (Statham) is a former black-ops supercop previously hired by a corrupt New York mayor (Chris Sarandon) to play Travis Bickle, unofficially wiping criminal scum off the streets. But disgust with his crooked bosses and colleagues eventually leads him to become a cage fighter instead, until a lethal accident and a proud refusal to throw a fight brings him into the vengeful orbit of a sadistic Russian mafia godfather Docheski (Sandor Tecsy). Instead of killing Wright, Docheski’s henchmen murder his wife and leaves him homeless, contriving a baroque punishment that forces him to spend the rest of his life isolated from human contact. Under constant surveillance, anybody he becomes close to will be instantly targeted for execution.

Meanwhile, the Russians are also engaged in a violent feud with the Chinese Triads over access to 10-year-old Mei (Catherine Chan), a genius-level golden child abducted from China due to her superhuman math and memory skills. Both Docheski and his Chinese counterpart Hang Jiao (veteran Chinese-American stalwart James Hong, alumni of both Chinatown and Blade Runner) covet Mei’s beautiful mind because it contains the secret combination to a fortress-like casino safe where the Triads have stashed a vast fortune. But as she flees from a series of botched abduction attempts, Mei crosses Wright’s path, pulling him back from the brink of suicide with a redemptive mission to protect her from harm.

After this preposterous but fairly compelling set-up, Safe becomes increasingly hobbled by obligatory action-movie clichés as Wright turns the tables on both his Russian and Chinese pursuers. Escaping from a spectacular hotel siege, he gathers together his former sworn enemies on the police force for a heavily armed, Ocean’s Eleven-style raid on the safe itself. This noisy climax feels both wildly implausible and almost incidental to the plot, as if grafted on as an afterthought to ramp up the action and reinforce the title’s double meaning.

Safe initially seems to promise more than a standard Statham thriller, with its gritty aesthetic and bleak character back story. Yoakin is clearly a gifted action stylist, dispensing with the opening credits altogether to dive straight into the guts of the story via a series of jump-cut flashbacks, quickfire set-ups and percussive stunt sequences. His car crashes are especially good, making virtuoso use of mirrors and point-of-view shots to amplify their kinetic, in-your-face impact.

Film fans raised on classic 1970s New York thrillers will also enjoy Yoakin’s anachronistic vision of the city as a grimy, grungy, retro-sleazy gangster’s paradise. While his street chases have some of visceral white-knuckle charge of primetime William Friedkin or John Frankenheimer, his depiction of Manhattan as ruled by shady officials and violent cops recalls the quasi-Shakespearean rotten kingdom that often served as Sidney Lumet’s territory. Inevitably, these nods to former glory lack the political subtlety and dramatic weight of their cinematic ancestors, but it is pleasing to note that pre-Guiliani NYC still maintains a gravitational pull on the collective psyche.

Safe ultimately resolves itself into a string of familiar Statham money shots – leaden quips, fist fights, gun battles and a huge body count. Indeed, even action genre devotees may balk at the high number of random killings here, most of them sloppy and dramatically pointless. In the process, Wright bounces back from guilt-ridden, grief-stricken husk to one-man army of righteous revenge. His final bonding session with Mei, father and daughter style, is as corny as it is inevitable. And thus a movie which opens with teasing echoes of Unforgiven or The Bourne Identity settles for being just another cookie-cutter star vehicle with almost no moral center or emotional depth.

Of course, Statham did not become the Billion Dollar Man by pandering to arthouse ambiguity. He clearly knows his target audience and has little interest in challenging them, or himself. But where once he was tipped as a prospective successor to Willis, career choices like this one suggests he is happy to settle for being the new Chuck Norris. For all its surface grit and dark undertow, Safe plays it very safe indeed.