Jason Statham has become the go-to guy for modern action movies, achieving the sort of success that – like Chuck Norris, Jean Claude Van Damme, Jet Li, and so many of his other predecessors – puts every element of his films secondary to the fact that he’s in them. At a time when many actors complain about being pigeonholed into a certain type of role, there’s something to be said for recognizing your audience and giving them what they want – something Statham has done time and time again and looks to continue doing with his new film, Safe.
Written and directed by Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans, Fresh), Safe casts Statham as Luke Wright, a downtrodden city worker with a mysterious past who earns money on the side by letting himself get pummeled in underground fights. When he accidentally wins a fight he was supposed to lose, Russian gangsters kill his family and sentence him to a living death in which anyone he becomes friendly with is brutally murdered. Destitute and contemplating suicide, Luke impulsively saves a young Chinese girl from a gang of thugs and soon finds himself caught in a war between Russian and Chinese gangs, and a group of corrupt New York policemen all trying to get their hands on the girl.
To their credit, many of the films Statham has appeared in have succeeded on more than just his presence, and offered a mix of fun stories, clever plot devices, and memorable set pieces to go along with their star’s particular brand of action hero. Safe doesn’t exactly raise the bar for any of those elements, but in neglecting to do so, it reminds its audience of two important facts: first, that the best action heroes don’t need those elements to put on a great show; and second, that Jason Statham is a damn fine action hero.
Safe does a smart job of playing to Statham’s strengths in its action sequences. His characters are traditionally bull-terrier types, with reflexes quicker than his solid frame suggests and a temperament that makes him unable to retreat once he’s pushed (often reluctantly) into action. There’s a good reason why his most memorable fight scenes tend to unfold in warehouses and garages, as his characters always give off a distinctly blue-collar vibe (even when he’s wearing a fancy suit), and always seem comfortable slugging it out amid the grime and cement.
In Safe we get more of the same proven formula, with Statham’s beaten-down protagonist shrugging his shoulders before dispatching a batch of gangsters in a crowded subway car early in the film, then proceeding to punch, kick, and shoot his way through waves of bad guys until the credits roll.
Sadly, Yakin’s story never manages to feel as fresh or energetic as the narratives that drove Crank or The Bank Job, and Safe lacks the memorable set pieces that made movies like The Transporter stand out (his bike-pedal brawl amid the oil, for example). The film accomplishes what it set out to do as far as providing a compelling reason for its hero to fight his way across Manhattan, but doesn’t over-achieve the way some of Statham’s previous films did.
Still, it’s worth noting that the film offers a clever twist on the climactic fight scene typical to most action movies.
There are also some good performances squeezed in among the action scenes in Safe, most notably Reggie Lee’s fun turn as Triad right-hand man Quan Chang, who manages to be one of the film’s most memorable villains. Young actress Catherine Chan does a nice job of playing off Statham and weathering the violence erupting around her, and James Hong makes a truly sinister leader of the Triad.
And while the action sequences are all executed well, there are a few moments where the chaos Statham’s character causes throughout New York City becomes almost laughably excessive. Whether it’s Luke Wright’s all-too-simple escape from a subway gunfight or a cross-town car chase involving semi-automatic weapons during what appears to be the mid-day Manhattan rush, there’s a feeling that this version of the Big Apple must pre-date the post-9/11, high-security conditions present throughout New York and every other major city these days. Cars are blown up on busy avenues and both villains and bystanders are annihilated with impunity. These moments of explosive carnage seem all the more out of place when they’re perpetrated by Statham’s character, who’s sleeping in a homeless shelter when we meet him, only to lead an armed, late-night assault on a Manhattan building a short time later.
Nevertheless, Safe manages to deliver the goods when it comes to the precisely choreographed, gritty fight scenes that Statham is so great at performing. Leaving out the occasional moments of over-the-top mass destruction, Yakin’s script is a good fit for Statham, and provides a nice narrative thread that makes the film more than just a series of fight scenes.
While it doesn’t achieve at the same level as Crank or The Transporter, it’s also not a disposable brawl-fest that lacks heart. More than anything else, it’s a nice reminder that Statham is still one of the most entertaining action heroes on the big screen, and when he inevitably shrugs his shoulders and puts up his fists, it’s always a show worth watching.