Good times on
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, Apr. 27, 2012
In 2011, more than 500 people were slain in New York City. "Safe," the latest Jason Statham stab-and-shoot-'em-up, rivals that toll in barely 90 minutes - and that's without even visiting three of Gotham's boroughs.
There's a back story to this, and it's actually sort of witty. But that can't be discussed, because it would reveal too much about Luke, the killing machine Statham plays here. Let's just say that writer-director Boaz Yakin (yup, the guy who made the insipid "Remember the Titans") has an unorthodox theory about his home town's declining crime rate.
There's not much else that's unconventional about "Safe," which follows the template of such previous Statham vehicles as "The Mechanic" and the three "Transporter" flicks. The actor usually plays terse loners, yet they're always the kind of guys who pick up strays. So it's no surprise when Luke rescues 11-year-old Mei (Catherine Chan), a math prodigy transported by gangsters from China to Chinatown because of her photographic recall of numbers.
The movie's opening sequences are vigorously cross-cut, showing Luke and Mei's parallel plights. A penitent ex-cop, Luke has become a cage fighter as a way of atoning for past misdeeds. When he fails to throw a bout on which a Russian gangster has bet heavily, Luke suffers more punishment: His family is massacred, and he's forced to wander the tri-state area alone, like a contemporary Ancient Mariner.
Meanwhile, Mei is sought by those same Russian mobsters, because she's memorized a string of numbers they want. The Chinese thugs who originally seized her skills also hunt her, as does a gang of NYPD officers whose corruption leads all the way to the tippy-top. Mei is snatched by each faction at various points, but Luke is always in hot pursuit. If he has to waste a few dozen miscreants to liberate the girl, so much the better.
Aside from providing an alternate meaning for the movie's title, the numbers Mei has memorized don't provide much of a payoff. But then, "Safe" isn't very interested in mental processes. It's more concerned with impossibly fluid fisticuffs, cunningly photographed car chases and John Woo-style where-did-that-gun-come-from? firefights. Showing unexpected chops as an action choreographer, Yakin often reaches the bloody sweet spot where mayhem becomes indistinguishable from slapstick. He also salutes classic Hollywood by playing down the usual B-movie rap and techno in favor of a moody orchestral score by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh.
Morally, "Safe" is inexcusable; narratively, it's absurd. But it's great fun, especially for those who cherish the 1970s urban-paranoia movies that took bleak pleasure in imagining a world even worse than the real one. Connoisseurs of the genre should feel warm pangs of nostalgia as they watch Yakin's icy depiction of a New York where absolutely everyone - save one unshaven superhero and one pint-size brainiac - is on the take.
Contains violence and profanity.