IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 94 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In Hong Kong, young Mei, who has a special gift for remembering numbers, is taken from her mother’s care by gangsters who want to use her talent, and taken to New York, where the local Triad leader uses her to help keep him in control of much of the city. Wondering around the city is Luke Wright is a homeless guy who was once a cage fighter, but he blew a rigged fight, causing the Russian mafia to murder his wife. Mei is asked to remember a special, extra-long number, but is snatched from the Chinese by the Russians during a gun battle. The Russians are then attacked by the New York police, much of whom are deeply corrupt and are constantly making deals with the gangs. Mei escapes and is pursued by men into a railway station, where Luke is about to kill himself…..
Jason Statham really stretches himself and shows true versatility in Safe, a highly emotional and very romantic drama. Nah, who am I kidding? Actually, the Stath, once again, just plays the Stath, and for all that some might moan that he doesn’t attempt to do anything different, he’s great at it. This is nothing new either; Clint Eastwood tended to play variations on the same role for at least two decades. Statham plainly enjoys making the kinds of films he does and has said that those kind of movies are the ones he most enjoys going to see, so fair play to him. Of course, quality does vary somewhat. His last outing, the underrated Killer Elite, was for me amongst his best pictures. Safe, which reminded me of a Bruce Willis picture called Mercury Rising, falls around the middle as Statham movies go. It’s an enjoyable action picture but doesn’t have the invention of movies like Crank and Transporter 2 and is a bit run-of-the-mill.
The early section of Safe flits back and forth almost too fast as it introduces our two main characters, and we are not really given enough time to engage with them. Obviously writer/director Boaz Yakin knew he had to set the story in motion before the action could start, but felt he had to rush matters to get to the good stuff. The plot is actually not very complicated, but the overly rapid progression of scenes and constant barrage of information makes it seem like it. After a while I realised that all I needed to know was; everyone in New York was on ‘the take’, they all want what Mei has memorised, and Luke has a shady past which we know will be revealed in good time. I admire the fact that Yakin has tried to give us a decent story to balance the action, but it becomes more and more ridiculous as it goes on. Of course realism is not important in action movies, but Safe attempts, for the most part, a fairly realistic approach, so the two elements clash.
O well, the action is pretty constant, with fights, car chases and gunfights galore. Statham is the most brutal he’s been in a while as he kills off baddie after baddie. The neck-breaking, arm-snapping brawling is quite vicious and nicely mixes martial arts with street fighting. Much of it is cut rather too fast so it’s not too easy to see and you almost have to squint your eyes, but there is sometimes some invention in the filming. I especially liked being in a car while stuff was going on all around it, and seeing things happening in the rear-view mirror. Overall the action is nothing new though and stops towards the ending, which seems to be about to give us a great climactic duel and doesn’t. The way things play out makes sense in terms of the story, characters and thematic elements, but this is an action movie dammit, and you will probably be left with a feeling of disappointment. Still, there isn’t much room for scenes between Mei and Luke; in fact they have about two or three dialogue scenes together, and I would have liked to have seen more, to give the movie an emotional dimension, but it seems happier with Statham taking out goons in a restaurant, or on a train, or in a nightclub.
It does seem to have something to say though. In part it is about Luke’s redemption, with the scene where he first meets her being rather similar to the scene in It’s A Wonderful Life where George is about to kill himself and Clarence the angel falls in the water so George can save him, in the process stopping George’s suicide. Mei is the angel who saves Luke from topping himself and gives him a sense of purpose. The film actually seems to be more interested in Mei, who is played very well by Catherine Chan. She seems able to show changing and conflicting emotions in quite a subtle way. Throughout, Mei is constantly threatened by gun-wielding gangsters, and it’s quite upsetting to see, but she seems to change greatly through the film. A good example is when a guy is shot in front of her and she hides her eyes. Later on, the same thing happens but this time she looks even though she is advised not to. I will not describe exactly what she does at the end, but it does seem that Yaki is commenting on desensitisation to violence. I think he means us to wonder if the ending is indeed a happy one, and that it’s possible that Luke and Mei’s troubles may have only just begun. Complaints though about the supposed amorality of Safe are wrong in my opinion; the film seems to be asking us moral questions while still, cunningly, letting us revel in the violence.
In most of Statham’s films, he has a scene or two that show what a good actor he can be, and Safe has several. Especially strong is an early bit where Russians have broken into his house and, his life seemingly ruined, he kneels on the floor and seems to want to die, his face in total anguish and despair. Of course for most of the film he’s just the Stath, and that’s just the way we like him. Overall Safe is a slightly awkward piece, playing it, appropriately, very safe for the most part, but it does have some interesting stuff in it buried amongst the crash bang wallop and it is certainly fun, reminiscent of some 80s action movies in feel. I would have liked to have seen a longer, more detailed movie from this story, exploring its themes in more depth and really letting us into the minds of its two main characters. But then it wouldn’t have been a Jason Statham movie, would it?