One thing I will never understand is why a director casts a very capable martial artist, then has him shoot at people for 90 minutes. If an actor looks great kicking someone in the throat, then let him throat kick. Don't put them in long stagnant gunfights. That, in a nutshell, is my biggest issue with Safe, the new Jason Statham vehicle. There's some intense and exhilarating hand-to-hand combat for the first half, followed by poorly staged shootouts in the second, which makes the entire finale anti-climactic and boring. Add the ludicrous plot and Safe plays like it should have been a direct-to-DVD release instead of a heavily marketed theatrical outing.
Let's look at our checklist of clichéd action movie tropes. 1) Statham plays Luke Wright, a “ghost” who used to dispose of the NYPD's biggest problems that weren't worthy of arrest...Check! 2) His overwhelming guilt causes him to leave the force and become a cage fighter who lets his opponents beat him to a pulp as some form of penance...check! 3) His wife is murdered by the Russian mob when he refuses to throw a fight...check! 4) He meets a brilliant little Asian girl who gives him a reason to live and, even though he keeps saving her, she's the one who really “saves” him...check!
I feel like I've seen each one of these plot points a dozen times in better movies, but that wouldn't matter if the action was well choreographed and exciting. Instead we have a film riddled with clichés and a director with no sense of the geography of a gunfight who won’t stop shaking the camera long enough for the audience to grasp what they're seeing.
Director Boaz Yakin is responsible for Fresh, one of my all-time favorite gang movies to come out in the early '90s, following the mega success of Boyz n the Hood. Fresh marked Yakin as a filmmaker to be watched and, six years later with the release of Remember the Titans, he finally had a hit that should have propelled him into the upper echelon of bankable Hollywood directors, but he squandered that promise with Uptown Girls and a few other forgettable pieces of claptrap. Safe won't help him out of that rut because he doesn't show any special aptitude for action other than two or three fun moments and he wastes the usually reliable Statham by not giving him anything exciting to do.
Do you remember the first time you saw the scene in The Transporter where an oil-coated Statham fought ten guys while wearing giant cleats or when he took on the Mexican drug cartel WHILE ON FIRE!!! in Crank 2? Where the hell is that Jason Statham and why has he been replaced with this morose, angsty sad sack wearing Steve McQueen's beanie from Papillon? The role of a man with nothing left to lose is a good one for Statham and I'm not saying he should repeat himself ad nauseum, but all he has to work with is an archetype without the batshit insane action and stunts from his earlier work. I won't care if he's playing a role I've seen a thousand times as long as he's punching midgets in the throat or saving a baby from sharks with head mounted lasers.
Safe is the kind of movie for which Redbox was invented. A few beers, some friends and a pizza might make this film much more enjoyable and less vulnerable to criticism, or it might just be more disappointing when Statham trades in all the kicks and punches for precision shooting and ducking. Yes, he still looks good firing a gun—but why hire a ninja for a slap-box fight?
Starring Jason Statham, Robert John Burke, James Hong and Chris Sarandon.
Directed by Boaz Yakin