dir. Boaz Yakin
Release Date: Apr 27, 12
Safe is one of the filthiest, most shameless mainstream exploitation movies in recent memory, and also one of the most thoroughly entertaining. Luke (Jason Statham, the most alive he’s been since the last Crank installment) is a suicidal ex-cop turned MMA fighter who burns his promoters after he ruins their spread during a fight by hitting his opponent so hard that he ends up comatose. Luke is met in his apartment by Russian strongmen, who’ve murdered Luke’s pregnant wife, and they tell him that anyone he befriends from then on will be killed. This gets complicated for Luke when he saves a little girl named Mei (Catherine Chan) from the same Russian gang on a New York subway train. Mei, as it turns out, has perfect photographic memory, and was abducted to play courier for a rival Chinese gang. Over the course of one violent night, Luke takes on both gangs, as well as a NYPD filled with dirty cops and a corrupt mayor.
The plot, thick though it is, is really just an excuse for Statham to beat the living hell out of virtually everyone he encounters. Like the best early 90s urban nightmares (Falling Down comes to mind), Safe presents a version of New York City where good guys don’t exist and pretty much everybody has their hands in the tithe basket at some point or another. In response to this callous world director Boaz Yakin creates, Statham gives Luke a depth he isn’t usually allowed to show off, to the film’s benefit. It’s a common misconception that Statham is on par with latter-day Stallone or most other action heroes, as he’s a more self-aware and generally better actor than most of his contemporaries.
Yakin’s direction gives the action sequences a punch that most Statham vehicles tend to lack. The gunshots ring with real weight, rather than the standard cap-gun sounds, giving even overcooked moments like a bloodbath in a Chinatown casino a distinctive feel. The film really shines during the hand-to-hand combat sequences, from the early one in which Luke rescues Mei to a climactic showdown between Statham and the mayor’s right-hand man, which ends with a perfectly executed, hilariously shocking burst of bloodshed. If The Raid: Redemption hadn’t already laid claim to being 2012’s best pure action flick, Safe would rank high at its best points. Even the few slow-moving moments, in which Luke attempts to break through Mei’s seen-too-much exterior, resonate better than they have to. Yakin knows just how many of these scenes are necessary, and doesn’t overplay his hand.
Safe never forgets what it is, though, which is to say sleazy neo-exploitation. From the charismatically evil Chinese gangsters (Mei’s mother is held captive as blackmail for her obedience), to the thuggish Russians, to the racist police force, pretty much everybody in Safe outside of its two protagonists are the most evil human beings in the world. Statham, in between roundhouse kicks, gets to rattle off golden exchanges like the one in which the mayor expresses shock at the size of Luke’s metaphoric balls, and he replies with a dry “Funny I can even walk.” So it goes in the realm of the Jason Statham movie.