Jason Statham’s fans don’t put much of a premium on originality. They’re happy with any excuse to see the brawny action star kick butt in a variety of very violent ways. Story, setting, style and supporting characters are all beside the point. Just bring on the fights.
“Safe” delivers on that level, but also aspires to more. As written and directed by Boaz Yakin (“Remember the Titans”), it’s a convoluted conspiracy thriller. A poor man’s “Chinatown” with cops as crooked as the criminals and only our loner hero (Statham, naturally) around to set them straight by cracking their skulls.
Statham’s character here is Luke Wright -- a sort of Jack Bauer-ish renegade who does the dirty work no one else will do to keep the city safe. At least he did until he got in so deep even the government couldn’t protect him from the Russian mobsters who executed his family and friends and threatened to repeat the bloodshed with anyone else Luke might ever care about for the rest of his miserable life. And so Luke dropped out of sight only resurfacing when he crosses paths with pre-teen Chinese math whiz Mei (Catherine Chan), who is being hunted by the same Russian meanies.
Mei is also a pawn of the Chinese mob in their war against both the Russians and corrupt public officers including NYPD Police Captain Wolf (Robert John Burke) and Mayor Tramello (Chris Sarandon). All these opposing forces may be morally bankrupt and utterly vicious, but Luke can single-handedly take down a subway car full of thugs, blast away mafia stooges like targets at a shooting gallery, and debilitate an opponent with one well-placed kick to the windpipe. Who do you want to bet on?
The successful sequences in “Safe” involve Statham running, jumping, kicking, punching, shooting, driving fast cars and otherwise proficiently executing the action choreographed by Chad Stahelksi (a longtime stuntman and recently a second unit director on “The Hunger Games”). This is a movie where everyone is constantly threatening to kill everyone else, and usually making good on the promise. Civilians are only on hand to increase the body count. Yakin directs the mayhem with an energy and vitality well suited to, and not always present in, the action genre. There’s an assured sense of play to cinematographer Stefan Czapsky’s camera angles and editor Frederic Thoraval’s scene transitions, and the movie avoids music video style gloss in favor of the gritty B-grade ‘70s/‘80s spirit that makes genre fans feel nice and nostalgic.
The less successful sequences in “Safe” include pretty much any scene where any character opens their mouth to speak. There are some funny lines here and there, and the breezy set-up is effective (especially in establishing Mei’s backstory and math skills), but once the film digs into the plot, takes some clumsy stabs at developing the bond between Luke and Mei and fails to distinguish its various villains (including veteran James Hong as the head of the Chinese mob and Joseph Sikora as the most menacing Russian), it’s clear that Yakin’s script is right in line with his early career efforts writing generic action films “The Punisher” and “The Rookie.”
The only thing unusual about the project is where it fits in Yakin’s increasingly odd directorial career, which spans clever Sundance prize-winner “Fresh,” inspirational hit “Titans,” Brittany Murphy/Dakota Fanning comedy “Uptown Girls” and the Renée Zellweger Hasidic Judaism drama “A Price Above Rubies.” Yakin’s last film, “Death in Love” was one of his most personal and bizarre -- a dysfunctional family drama equal parts alienating and intriguing that barely made a blip at the box office. It’s hard not to read “Safe” as either a deliberate retreat to the comforts of commercial filmmaking or a conscious effort to play nice within the system.
Statham also is only challenging himself in theory here. He attempts a couple Big Acting moments -- including a showy scene where Luke is on the verge of suicide -- but like his last underwhelming effort, “Killer Elite,” the film’s dramatic elements are no more than mediocre. Still, Statham has cultivated a fairly consistent following. His starring vehicles generally gross between $20 million-$40 million in the U.S. Even if “Safe” falls at the low end of that range (or outright flops like “Crank: High Voltage”), it won’t matter much. He’s got ensemble effort “The Expendables 2” right around the corner, and the crime drama “Parker” with Jennifer Lopez and Nick Nolte due early next year.
Like his on screen persona, Statham continually proves he can take a licking and keep on ticking. But one of these days, it might be nice for him to really surprise us.
"Safe" opens in theaters April 27