Jason Statham is a man of few words. He talks in short, sometimes fragmented sentences that reveal a hint of his thoughts but never their entirety. His terse, gritty persona brings to mind Clint Eastwood. Statham idolizes Eastwood but dismisses any comparisons. “You got to be careful mentioning people as great as Clint Eastwood,” he warns while adding humbly, “You can’t put me in the same sentence as that man.”
He has more perhaps in common with his “Expendables” co-star Jet Li, who came to acting through martial arts. Statham’s own circuitous path to acting included a stint as an Olympic diver, so it comes as no surprise that he roots his characters in the visceral rather than cerebral realm.
“I have a sense for what feels right in the physical action,” he says of his starring role in Boaz Yakin’s thrill-per-minute “Safe” which opens Friday. In it, Statham plays Luke Wright, a cop-turned-ultimate-fighter who loses everything when the wrong person loses a bet on one of his matches. On the verge of suicide, he meets a young girl who’s being used as a pawn by both the Russian and Chinese mafias. They spend the next 90 minutes avoiding capture by some evil men, the kind who laugh manically in front of mirrors.
“I like the clarity of good versus evil,” Statham says. “People can see the definition between the two. Then you can really hang your hat and get behind the right people. You can just will them through the story.”
With all the bad guys he fights in “Safe” — including a series of men in an intricate subway fight that takes place both inside the claustrophobic train cars and briefly on top of them — there isn’t much time for dialogue. But that doesn’t bother the stoic actor. “You can’t say more than what they write,” Statham says. “If they have few words to say, that’s what you end up getting.”
But “Safe” has other, simpler charms that appeal to Statham. “I liked the subway fight. That was very inventive and quite painful for a few of my fellow stuntmen.” It’s the kind of scene that provokes wide-eyed disbelief as men withstand far too many blows to the head than seem humanly possible.
As much as the movie can feel like typical Statham fare, there are subtleties in his performance that Yakin is quick to point out.
“There are a lot of actors who I think are more ‘actory,’ but they have to do a lot more work to get to that more simple place that Jason can get to,” Yakin says. “That scene when he comes home and his wife’s been killed, and I just basically move the camera in on his face and stay with him for 30 seconds while literally everyone else is talking, there are not a lot of actors who can hold that close-up.”
Statham is more apt to talk about some of Yakin’s other shots. “Bo wanted these extended takes, so there’s no room for error” Statham says. “If there’s one punch that you miss, you have to go back and do it again. It can be very tiring.”
He softens up slightly when talking about Catherine Chan, the actress who plays the little girl his character is drawn to save. “I love it when they have a very young girl who acts very grown-up,” he says. “I think that’s the real chemistry that comes. You talk to them like a grown-up, and they talk to you like a grown-up. There’s something quite odd about it, but it really works.”
Producer Lawrence Bender, who’s been behind every great Quentin Tarantino film, from “Reservoir Dogs” to “Inglourious Basterds,” sees Statham as an action star from another time. “To me, Jason’s like Steve McQueen,” Bender says. “Steve McQueen was the kind of guy that guys would put posters of his motorcycle up on the wall. Guys want to be him and girls want to be with him. The same kind of cool, anti-hero, machismo, vulnerable, bad-boy thing. I don’t think people put posters up of guys anymore.”
That’s fine with Statham, though, who voices concerns that are more practical and of the moment. While he’s starred in many films with far bigger budgets — from “The Italian Job” to “The Expendables” — “Safe” is the first one he has to carry without an ensemble.
“With ‘The Expendables’ you have such a brilliant mess of the greatest action stars of all time, so you’re in for the ride with those people,” he says. “In a movie like ‘Safe,’ I’m on my own.
“I’m screwed,” he adds, but with a coolness that belies the concern his words suggest.
Christopher Kompanek is a freelance writer.
opens in area theaters Friday.