This movie is way better than it should be. Don’t get me wrong; if you hate dumb action movies, you should stay far, far away from Safe. It’s not going to make any converts. But if you’ll go see a Jason Statham movie just because Jason Statham maintains the same delicious swagger in all his films, no matter how excrementitious those films may be (shout-out to Blitz!) you’ll come out of Safe feeling surprised and pleased by how good it is. Just as this isn’t hacky low-budget action Statham, this isn’t batshit Statham, à la Crank or Transporter 2, either. Instead, it’s something a little bit different.
I assume that much of the difference comes with writer/director Boaz Yakin. There’s extra thought put into the script: Rather than just introducing us to the good guys and the bad guys in the first two minutes, Safe spreads out the stories of the principal characters in a layered series of flashbacks, and Statham’s character’s secrets (his name in this movie is supposed to be Luke Wright, but come on; like Bogart is always Bogart, no Statham character is ever anyone other than Statham) slowly unravel over the course of the action.
The stakes feel higher, too. Statham isn’t just on the run from the mob for failing to take a fall in an ultimate fighting match—he’s been cursed by the Russian mafia in a delightfully malevolent revenge scheme: Anyone he talks to could wind up murdered by the mobsters invisibly trailing him at all times, and he has to live with the fact that any contact he makes could result in the death of the other party, no matter how casual that contact may be. But because it’s a Jason Statham movie, within minutes, he winds up as the inadvertent protector of a young girl with a photographic memory who is on the run from the Chinese mob.
Yakin contributes something extra to the direction, too. His car chases, especially, carry a fresh excitement because of what Yakin decides not to show us. Often, we’re forced to put together the action ourselves, in one case based on a mostly obscured view through a rearview mirror. The camera will sit maddeningly still while a gun battle happens just out of our line of sight. Sometimes, the action is demure, and other times, people get their brains blown out right on-screen; the lack of uniformity ratchets up the suspense.
And Yakin uses Statham to his maximum potential. Though he of course desperately wants to protect this innocent young girl he’s just met, Statham has no other unnecessary attachments. He’s not going to fall in love by the end of the movie. He doesn’t talk a whole hell of a lot. But when it’s time to kick ass, Statham throws himself into it with his whole self, often using his body as a giant, meaty cannonball to tip over tables or to throw someone off-balance. In Safe, Statham is an animal, and he’s the closest we’re probably going to get in this millennium to Lee Marvin’s brutal kineticism.
But, again, don’t get me wrong; nobody is going to walk away from Safe with any Oscars. The plot goes off the rails toward the end, when too many hilariously corrupt cops, pissed-off Chinese mobsters, inhuman Russians, and dirty politicians get thrown into the mess. There’s a part three-quarters of the way through where everyone stops fighting and starts talking for what feels like six hours. Yakin for some reason decided to cast Chris Sarandon as the least charismatic mayor New York City has ever seen. The girl is never really developed as a character beyond being brave, a genius, and Chinese.
But you don’t go to Jason Statham movies for good casting or excellent female characters or a bulletproof plot. You go to Jason Statham movies to watch this bizarrely charismatic former male fashion model beat the living shit out of a bunch of guys who deserve it. With Safe, you get that and a little bit more. Let’s just call it a bonus.