Is it just me, or are these Jason Statham action films becoming harder and harder to tell apart? They say to go with what you know, but blast it all, I need to know if this man is capable of something other than fight choreography and witty one-liners. Safe is yet another film that exploits his physicality and completely ignores his potential for actual acting. On the basis of just about every movie he has ever been in, filmmakers don’t regard him as an artist but merely as a tool – the go-to guy for mindless stunts and relentless action violence. Is this because real acting isn’t his forte? If that’s the case, fine, but please have the decency to let me know this. Cast him in a role he’s unqualified for and let me watch him fail. At least then I can finally stop questioning the extent of his range.
Unfortunately, Statham’s typecasting is only part of what makes this movie so bad. Safe weaves a needlessly convoluted tale of crime and corruption, which is to say that audiences seeking the kind of cheap thrills Statham is known for are unlikely to make heads or tails of who’s doing what to whom and why. When we’re not trying to muddle our way through the plot, we must endure scene after scene of gun-pointing and shooting and brutal hand-to-hand combat, most of which are over so quickly and edited with such rapid-fire pacing that it’s virtually impossible to distinguish one move from another. At which point did cinematic action fall victim to such mobility extremes? If it isn’t in agonizing slow motion, then it’s cut together like a frenetic music video. Middle ground seems to have disappeared somewhere along the way.
The plot, as it were, involves a former NYPD cop named Luke Wright (Statham), who was at one time involved in a task force specializing in the assassination of terrorists. Ashamed of his actions, he took to being a cage fighter in New Jersey. During one of the matches, he didn’t take the dive he was supposed to take and ended up putting his opponent in a coma. He also got himself in hot water with Russian mobsters, who punished him by murdering his wife. Rather than kill him as well, they decree that he must live the rest of his days as an outcast of society; anyone he comes into contact with will immediately be killed. He spends the next year living as a vagrant in New York City, acting coldly to anyone that speaks to him. In a moment of weakness, he gave a homeless man his shoes. Any guesses as to what happened next?
As this is being established, and I should point out that the opening scenes are played out of sequence, we meet a twelve-year-old Chinese girl named Mei (Catherine Chan), whose savant-like math skills catch the attention of a ruthless mobster named Han Jiao (James Hong). He has his henchmen kidnap her and, under threat of murdering her gravely ill mother (conveniently unseen), transport her to New York, where she will keep track of all the illegal rackets going on in Chinatown. She’s eventually given an unbelievably long number written on a piece of paper and instructed to memorize it. She does so instantaneously. She was to have been given a second number, but Russian mobsters intervened – which is to say, they crashed their vehicles into those of the Chinese henchmen, shot most of them, and kidnapped Mei. It isn’t long before she escapes and crosses paths with Luke, who was about ready to commit suicide by jumping onto subway rails.
The confusion over the connection between the Russians and the Chinese is maddening. It only gets worse when it’s revealed that both are tied to a group of corrupt cops, all of whom have a serious grudge against Luke. They waste no time in showing it; he’s arrested and driven to a quiet area of the city, at which point they all take their turns beating the living hell out of him. But let’s get back to Luke and Mei crossing paths. For reasons not made apparent to the audience, Luke’s paternal instincts kick in, and he vows to keep her safe. Mei, who speaks fluent English without a trace of an accent, tells him about the numbers she had to memorize. He deduces that hidden within the numbers is a code. It’s around this time that yet another subplot is added to the mix, this one involving the Mayor (Chris Sarandon). There’s also more fighting and a lot of Luke taking control through lies and manipulation.
Putting aside the plot altogether, there’s absolutely nothing about the relationship between Luke and Mei that comes off as genuine. One essentially acts as a deus ex machina for the other, their situations contrived solely for the purpose of having the two paired together. It doesn’t help that Statham and Chan have no chemistry; never once do their characters exhibit anything resembling a pseudo father-daughter bond, or even basic friendship. Is this the sign that I was looking for, the one that would let me know that Statham is indeed a bad actor and only good for brutal stunt work? Or is it merely a matter of bad writing and directing? I honestly don’t know. I can’t even tell if Safe was intended to be taken seriously, given the awkward mix of cringe-inducing violence and flippant dialogue. This movie is a gigantic mess.
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