REVIEW: Safe Plays It Too Safe — and Wastes Jason Statham
In movie terms, Jason Statham is a man without a country, an actor who fits so conveniently into a certain kind of movie that almost no one can think of him any other way. Where, oh where, can he go from here? Statham is the go-to guy for action movies that require an appealing, thoughtful protagonist who looks great shirtless, and Boaz Yakin’s Safe is, unfortunately, just more of the same, or perhaps even less of the same. It has neither the Red Bull–fueled crudeness of Crank nor the Frenchified lunatic vitality of the Transporter movies; it’s not even as cheaply entertaining as the generic hit-man retread The Mechanic. Safe shows Statham comfortably treading water, proving all the things he no longer needs to prove – chiefly, that he’s a terrific action performer who moves with more grace than pretty much anyone else in the film world. The picture fails to challenge him. Safe is safer than safe – it’s so relentlessly kinetic that it ends up being dull.
Statham plays former New York cop and sometime cage fighter Luke Wright, a guy who first gets on the wrong side of the Russian mob and then pisses off the Triads to boot. Somewhere in there, Luke’s old cop pals get in on the action too: They’re corrupt as hell, and when they finally get a hold of him, they’re all too eager to find ways to dispose of him. All three groups have a stake in one prized piece of property, who happens to be a person: Mei (Catherine Chan) is a child math prodigy who can hold streams of numbers in her head – business figures, safe combinations and the like – thus doing away with all those pesky paper trails. Mei has been whisked away from her home in China and pressed into service by the Triads as a kind of one-person bookkeeping service. Everyone wants the information she has stored in her head, which means she needs to be protected. And you’d think that Statham’s Luke, with his powerhouse brawn, dolphinlike agility and rough-soft kitten’s tongue of a voice, would be just the guy to do it.
And he is, sort of. But Safe – written and directed by Boaz Yakin – offers too much mindless gunplay and indiscriminate roughhousing and not enough Statham, even though he’s most certainly the star. The action is ostensibly the movie's reason for being, yet it's so chopped up and dizzying it’s practically a distraction, and it pushes the movie into a strange state of inertia. What's more, the action isn’t cleanly shot or edited – it’s almost impossible to tell who’s coming from where, which, sadly, is pretty much the standard in all contemporary action movies. But it’s a double disappointment given that Statham is such a charismatic star, both in terms of emotional subtlety and in the way his body moves. He has a few astonishing scenes, one in which he shows the deepest kind of sorrow without saying a word. Yakin – who has worked as both a screenwriter (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) and a director (Remember the Titans, A Price Above Rubies) clearly knows what Statham is capable of. So why doesn’t he use this movie to blast open more opportunities for this sorely underchallenged actor?
Your guess is as good as mine. Statham does have a few wonderful scenes with Chan, who may not be the most relaxed child actor but who nonetheless has a bright, sparkplug intensity. When Luke pumps her for information, Mei grudgingly complies. “Now you know everything. Happiness for you?” she shoots back bitterly, and in that moment you recognize that even though she’s tiny and cute, she’s a much tougher customer than Statham’s Luke is. He’s taken aback by her precociousness and her perceptiveness, but you can see he respects her, too. That’s the thing about Statham: He has the face of a careful listener, to the extent that his gloriously sculpted body almost seems like an afterthought.
The picture could use more scenes like that one, although perhaps Yakin didn’t want to make a retread of Luc Besson’s crazy-wonderful Léon, which paired Jean Reno’s hitman with the littlest hitgal, played by an astonishingly young Natalie Portman. But Safe would be so much better if it followed Léon’s lead, at least in terms of giving Statham a multidimensional character to play. Statham does his damnedest, but mostly, he just looks a little weary. Those of us who love Jason Statham will just have to wait until someone figures out what the heck to do with him. (So far, Roger Donaldson has come the closest, with his 2008 heist thriller The Bank Job.) For now, Safe is all we’ve got, and you can bet it’s not taking any risks.