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Safe (2012)

So let’s put ourselves into the hot seat occupied by Boaz Yakin as he sits down, first to write the screenplay and then to direct an action film. From this distance, it’s hard to know which is the chicken and which the egg. It’s entirely possible he writes a script and then tries to cast it. When he comes up with his “star”, he may tweak the script so that it’s a better fit to the star’s audience. Alternatively, he may write the script with a specific star in mind and then sell it to him. Either way, Safe (2012) is a classic Jason Statham film. Hmmm. So what exactly does that mean?

 

The first thing to recognise about this man is his athleticism. When young, he trained to World Championship level as a diver and it shows both in the general way he moves and in his capacity to flex, twist and turn in simulation of fighting. Even though he’s advancing into middle age, he manages to retain a quite amazing level of physicality on screen. Then he achieves a rare likeability even though he’s unusually laconic. Most actors establish their screen personalities through their “acting”, i.e. through their delivery of words. Jason Statham is prone to silences and stares. Despite this, he contrives to project qualities of honesty and humour, sadness and honour. Paradoxically, he achieves likeability even though he proves to be ruthless whether in disabling an opponent or killing him without a second thought. It’s a very neat trick and it has built a major niche audience, predominantly young male, who want to see him unleashed and dispensing righteous justice to anyone who gets in his way. If you add up the worldwide grosses of his films, he’s carried more than one billion dollars worth of ticket sales on his name — no mean achievement.

Jason Statham and Catherine Chan wonder if they are finally safe

 

However, there are “good” and “bad” Jason Statham films, the difference lying not in the performance or the fighing, but in whether there’s a decent underlying story. When he has a part in a broad narrative which makes sense, he’s very effective. So I give Boaz Yakin some kudos. The initial set-up of this film is one of the best we’ve seen for a while. As part of moving the cultural centre of films out of the Hollywood comfort zone and into world markets where tastes are more universal, we have an American-made film, mostly set in Manhattan, but with quite significant portions shot in Mandarin and Russian with subtitles. Under normal circumstances, any foreign language element in US cinemas is the kiss of death. Americans will not sit still and read subtitles. Yet here’s Lionsgate fearing nothing and betting it will earn its money in foreign markets.

James Hong and Catherine Chan discuss numbers

 

We have a twin narrative thread. We start with Jason Statham’s character as a failing cage fighter who, by mistake, wins a bout he’s suppose to lose. The Russian mob punish him by murdering his wife and hounding him over a long period of time in the expectation that, sooner or later, he will commit suicide. In China, Mei (Catherine Chan) is demonstrating that she’s a maths prodigy backed up with an eidetic memory. This makes her attractive to the old school Chinese triads led by Han Jiao (James Hong) who prefer human accountants to computers. They send her to New York to keep the books for the Chinatown operation run by Quan Chang (Reggie Lee). He begins the process of teaching her good from bad business. This involves hardening her to the consequences of her book-keeping. For example, when she detects losses in the casino, she must watch the beating and execution of the manager. All is going well for her until Han Jiao comes to New York to oversee a major financial transaction. Mei is to become the literal key to open doors. She’s to collect two very long numbers and then move to different locations where the significance of these numbers will be revealed and the transaction completed. Unfortunately, after Mei has received the first number from Han Jiao, she’s kidnapped by the Russian mob. At this point, a group of corrupt New York cops instigate a raid on the Russian base, allowing Mei to escape into the subway. Naturally, Jason Statham is just about to throw himself under a train when he sees the girl being pursued by mobsters he knows all too well. Somehow this kicks life back into him and the rest of the film is about how he tries to protect her.

Reggie Lee taking action to recover the missing girl

 

This makes the first half of the film outstanding. So long as we keep this relatively small scale and see our hero sequentially fighting the Russians, the Chinese and corrupt New York officers, it all stays credible and very engaging. But there’s a problem that Boaz Yakin creates for himself and fails to solve. He gives the parties involved a major financial transaction worth millions. It doesn’t actually matter what it is. But, when you are dealing with so much money, all the interested parties and the Russian gatecrashers are going to want a piece of the pie. One man cannot cope unless he has rather more impressive skills than those of a failed cage fighter and people he can call on for help. So Boaz wheels out the backstory and this means he has superskills and, ironically, a team of killers to call on to help him. So, at one bound he goes from tragic hero to Jason Statham overdrive. While this remains reasonably entertaining, it seems to be an opportunity missed. It would have been far more interesting if the brains of the little girl could match the brawn and figure out ways of winning without quite such a high body count.

 

Nevertheless, it’s great fun to see Jason Statham playing off Catherine Chan, our new young actress from Los Angeles, while James Hong is given a real chance to be menacing as the Triad boss. Even Reggie Lee comes out looking good as the businessman trying to make a living in New York’s Chinatown. Everyone else gets a few minutes of screen-time and acquits themselves well. So the end result is that Safe is one of the better Jason Statham films and worth seeing if you enjoy action-thrillers with lots of fighting.

 

Here are reviews of the films featuring Jason Statham:
Blitz (2011)
Gnomeo and Juliet
Killer Elite (2011)

 

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