I'm something of a Statham-aholic. I race to see all his movies regardless of how good they look but tend to find myself disappointed the next day. Especially in recent years, his output has been marred by mediocre action and too much emphasis on heroics. I want my Statham as cartoony as possible. If he's going to try for straight action, he can at least not waste my time with morals.
Safe delivers a decidedly straight action version of Statham (there are many Statham flavors, all of which I inventory here). But unlike the weak Mechanic and tonally confused Blitz, it's a surprisingly good entry in the genre. It's not The Raid, and non-action fans won't find much to enjoy. But if your idea of good movie involves one tough guy shooting a bunch of other tough guys in the face, Safe's your Huckleberry.
Statham stars as Jason Statham, an ex-cop, ex-assassin type and ex-cage fighter who lives homeless on the streets of New York after the Russian mob kills his wife and leaves him alive with a standing threat to murder pretty much anyone he talks to. It's a stupid conceit, but it also helps justify Statham's persistent lone-wolf assholeness. Additionally, a group of cops he once ratted out like to beat up on him in an attempt to goad him into killing himself. So Statham's in a bad place here, and only the promise of violence can rehabilitate him.
Things start looking up when he saves a spectacularly annoying Chinese girl who, like all little Chinese girls, can memorize large, coded numbers. Everyone's after this girl's brain-maguffin, not the just the Chinese, but Statham's Russians and Statham's bevy of dirty cops as well. Even the Mayor gets involved, and we find that Statham has close ties to him as well. This is important because, while the trailer makes the film look like a boring "tough guy protects little girl" story, it's actually more of a revenge movie. Statham even ditches the girl for the whole second act and gets to kick ass unencumbered. It's a glorious relief because everything about the girl sucks.
The film's hand-to-hand fighting is the same blurry nonsense we've been bored with for years now. But that's okay, as this is more of a gun movie. And writer-director Boaz Yakin executes all that stuff with surprising skill, especially a couple daylight car shootouts early in the film. Yakin films his gun violence with a surprisingly brutal realism. This isn't the kind of film that cuts to the shooter's face when he pulls the trigger. It's a hard-R with a primal psychological interest in the artistic expression held with sudden head trauma.
And more often than not, Statham delivers that trauma. For all his action accolades, Statham rarely delivers as much direct lethal punishment as his reputation insinuates. That's not the case here. I'm not sure I've ever seen him so brutal. This Statham is totally willing to disarm an enemy and shoot his head off in the middle of a crowded subway, answering his fellow commuters' collective shock with an annoyed "Don't lose sleep. He had it coming" - a line so stupidly badass, I'm not sure it even counts as a quip.
Given the three-way crime story running through Safe, the film rarely slows down once it gets going. That would be satisfying enough, but Boaz Yakin also unexpectedly makes time for brief but effective action movie mainstays like the cool team-up and the dangerous arch rival. Either would probably make a more exciting film than Safe if properly capitalized upon (the film's final badass in particular feels a bit rushed and underdeveloped), but as parts of this whole they add to rather than detract from the film's genre bona fides.
I must admit, however, that much of the film's core plotting was lost on me. Probably a third of the dialog is in either Russian or Chinese, and I lacked the benefit of English subtitles. Safe might be a better movie than I know. All I can tell you is the Russians looked cool, the Chinese plot gives us a fun return for Big Trouble in Little China's James Hong, and my Mandarin is good enough to know the Chinese girl is annoying on a bilingual level.
This isn't a classic. The overall plot is well written, but much of the already horrid dialog suffers from lackluster deliveries. If you like action films, however, I imagine you've already forgiven most of that stuff long ago. It delivers where it counts, and I liked it a million times more than The Mechanic or The Killer Elite. I only wish Jason Statham would give us just one more Crank film, or at least something approaching that series' humor and craziness, before succumbing to these endless rote action films, even if ones like this occasionally justify his stasis.