SAFE: An Action Programmer Goes Experimental Chic

Jason Statham isn’t just an actor anymore – he’s his own subgenre of the action film.  In the wake of the Transporter and Crank franchises, he’s the only action movie star who regularly gets films in the multiplexes today.  He can always be counted on to kick ass in hand-to-hand combat and shoot-outs alike and deliver a reliably professional performance that never condescends to the material.

Many of his films are formulaic programmers but every now and then you get a gem like The Bank Job where he gets to step outside the “look tough/shoot/punch/kick” requirements.  Safe is the latest entry in the Statham subgenre and it represents an interesting midpoint between the two aforementioned extremes.  Though Safe is composed almost entirely of archetypal staples of the action genre, it reshuffles the deck and lays out these elements in a challenging way that engages the action fan in a way the usual programmer does not.

Safe has two main characters to drive its plot.  The first is Mei (Catherine Chan), a little Chinese girl who is stolen away from her home by gangsters because she is a math prodigy with a prodigious skill for storing complex strings of numbers in her mind.  Because of this, she is shipped to New York where she functions as a human calculator who keeps track of the Triad’s local accounts.

The other is Luke Wright (Statham), a mysterious loner who has been scraping by as a cage fighter until he accidentally knocks out a guy when he’s supposed to take a dive.  As a result, the Russian mob murders his wife and condemns him to a living death where anyone he befriends will be killed.  He tries to sink into the anonymous life of a transient but even there is watched and bedeviled by his enemies.

Mei and Luke cross paths when he is considering throwing himself in front of a subway train and sees her being chased by thugs.  He finds a new reason to live and engages her would-be attackers with a masterful display of fighting techniques.  He wasn’t always a loser (his interesting past is parceled out through the remainder of the film) and his skills were lying in wait for a moment like this.  Those skills will be put to the test now because if he is going to protect Mei, he will have to face off with the Chinese mob, the Russian mob and a culture of city corruption that extends from the cops up to the Mayor (Chris Sarandon).

In short, Safe is built entirely from familiar elements: the little kid with a magic talent that crooks want, the former hero who yearns for redemption, the mobster turf war, cops who play all sides of the criminal world against each other, etc.  However, the familiarity of these elements are circumvented by the way they are laid out.  For example, the opening act of the story flips back and forth through the chronology of Mei and Luke’s lives in a way that transforms them into a cinematic Mobius strip that constant turns in on itself in ways that force you to pay attention.  This narrative sleight-of-hand doesn’t reinvent these elements but the tricky layout is impressive and gives familiar story hooks a fresh gloss.

Better yet, this tricky opening act gives you the sense that writer/director Boaz Yakin is actually having fun with the showmanship of it all.  He maintains this feeling with the rest of the film: once Mei and Luke team up, the film cranks into overdrive as it piles on the plot complications, revelations about who Luke really is, a few surprising shifts of allegiance and of course, plenty of action.

Yakin falls prey to unnecessary fast cutting in spots but the fights and shootouts are all skillfully staged, mixing sharp choreography with a sometimes stunning level of brutality.  He also comes up with some inventive visuals for his setpieces, like a scene where Mei is rescued from an ambushed car by Luke: this scene is filmed using the interiors of cars and their rearview mirrors so we get the feeling of the action more than the explicit details.

That said, the most unusual thing about this film is probably the presence of Yakin as director and screenwriter.  He started off making indie fare like Fresh and A Price Above Rubies before abruptly pivoting to become a director of mainstream schlock like Remember The Titans and Uptown Girls.  More recently, he’s served as a producer on the Hostel series. If that’s not eclectic then Your Humble Reviewer doesn’t know what is.

What drew Yakin to the action genre is anyone’s guess but Safe shows he is a quick study.  His script and direction reveal him as someone who understands the genre but is willing to toy with it in ways that brings out new textures in familiar elements.  He also makes solid choices in his casting.  Statham is his usual reliable self, kicking ass but doing so with heart and conviction, and Chan has a deadpan style that fits her shell-shocked, very guarded characterization.

However, the real surprises in the acting department come from some smartly chosen character actors.  James Hong pops up as the memorably surly Triad boss who plucks Mei from her home: in an interesting twist, he gets to do most of his acting in Chinese (with subtitles) and brings the old-school theatrics to the table.  Sarandon is witty in a few brief scenes as a Mayor who is sleazy in a very antiseptic, corporate-cowardly sort of way.  There is also some nice work from Robert John Burke as the top officer amongst the crooked cops: he uses his carved-from-granite looks and grizzled vet-cop demeanor as a sort of poker-face to mask what he is thinking at any given moment.

Simply put, Safe has fun with its genre, challenging action viewers to keep up with its pace and story arrangement.  It might not reinvent the genre but what Yakin pulls off here is akin to a chef taking the makings of a fast food meal and whipping it up into offbeat nouvelle cuisine that brings new life to old flavors.  It’s definitely one of the better vehicles that Statham has had in a while – and even if you don’t normally go for that sort of film, the cleverness of Safe‘s construction might engage you just the same.

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