April 26, 2012

Safe

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Safe

ACTION/THRILLER:

United States, 2012

U.S. Release Date:

2012-04-27

Running Length:

1:34

MPAA Classification:

R (Violence, Profanity)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Jason Statham, Catherine Chan, Robert John Burke, James Hong, Anson Mount, Chris Sarandon, Sandor Tecsy, Reggie Lee

Director:

Boaz Yakin

Screenplay:

Boaz Yakin

Cinematography:

Stefan Czapsky

Music:

Mark Mothersbaugh

U.S. Distributor:

Lionsgate

Subtitles:

In English, Mandarin, and Russian with subtitles


Over the course of the past decade, Jason Statham has created a nice little niche with films like The Transporter and Crank. Although it would be unfair to saddle him with the mantle of "successor to Schwarzenegger and Stallone," he's the closest thing we currently have to a consistently productive action star. His films are unapologetic high-octane cocktails of adrenaline and testosterone. They don't always make a lot of sense, but they're never boring and they always deliver exactly what Statham fans expect. Add Safe to the list. This may be the most brutal film Statham has done to date, with violence that approaches that of The Raid: Redemption for pure viciousness. It's hard to imagine a die-hard action fan being disappointed.

Safe borrows a modified version of Leon: The Professional's premise. The relationship that develops between the broken, world-weary ex-cop, Luke Wright (Statham), and the 12-year old Chinese-born genius, Mei (Catherine Chan), isn't as deeply realized as the memorable one between Natalie Portman and Jean Reno, but it's a reasonable facsimile. There's real affection here, but no sexual tension. Each finds what they need in the other. For Luke, it's a reason to live. For Mei, it's friendship. Of course, Safe isn't a Merchant-Ivory character drama, so writer/director Boaz Yakin spends only as much time fleshing out the interaction as is necessary to give the action and carnage an element of humanity.

Safe is somewhat hampered by an uneven pacing. It takes a full 30 minutes of back story development and exposition to set things up for the first big action sequence. After that, something badass happens regularly, with barely enough time in between for viewers to catch their breaths. Also, most of the fights aren't depictions of Luke giving beat-downs to adversaries. They're about Luke killing adversaries. Safe isn't interested in long, drawn-out fist-fights that end with both combatants bloody but alive. The objective is to elevate Luke's body count. It should be noted that he only kills bad guys but that's not an impediment because, other than Luke and Mei, everyone is a bad guy. He can, and does, kill nearly anyone who crosses his path.

Yakin, whose career began in indies, writes the villains with such over-the-top venom that it doesn't take many screen minutes before deciding that the likes of Robert John Burke (as a corrupt New York cop), Chris Sarandon (as the corrupt New York City mayor), James Hong (as the head of the Chinese mob), and Sandor Tecsy (as the head of the Russian mob) all deserve the most gruesome deaths possible. There are surprises, however, and things don't always work out as one might expect. That doesn't diminish the satisfaction quotient but it adds an element of the unanticipated to the recipe. There's something delicious about the way the climax twists our expectations to a triumphant and darkly humorous result.

One potentially intriguing plot element that is revealed, briefly explored, then dropped could make for a terrific thriller skeleton. At the beginning of Safe, Luke is a cage fighter who is supposed to throw a fight. He doesn't and this costs a Russian mobster a lot of money. In retaliation, the boss kills Luke's wife and promises Luke that he will be watched to his dying day and anyone he befriends will be murdered. Luke is destined to go through life without companionship. Of course, once the bullets start flying and Luke saves Mei from a group of Russian thugs, this aspect is swept under the cinematic rug.

Statham plays pretty much the role Statham always plays. That might sound like a criticism, but it's not. Some of the best-loved Hollywood icons, Bogey and the Duke among them, rarely stepped outside their comfort zone. Statham has found something he's good at and is sticking with it. His young co-star, Catherine Chan, shows poise and promise, but the part is not written with sufficient substance to be able to gauge her acting ability.

If there seem to be loose parallels between Safe and Quentin Tarantino's films, those are likely not coincidental: Tarantino's long-time producer, Lawrence Bender, fills the same role here. (He also produced Yakin's 1998 sophomore effort, A Price Above Rubies.) The violence has the straightforward, unflinching characteristic evident in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, although Yakin's dialogue falls considerably short of Tarantino's, both in terms of substance and offbeat humor. As a well-engineered opportunity to enjoy bloody mayhem without feeling too bad about who's on the receiving end, Safe has the combination.

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