Sunday, April 29, 2012

In Theaters: SAFE (2012)


Written and directed by Boaz Yakin.  Cast: Jason Statham, Robert John Burke, Chris Sarandon, Anson Mount, James Hong, Reggie Lee, Catherine Chan, Sandor Tecsy, Joseph Sikora, Igor Jijikine, Jack Gwaltney, Jay Giannone. (R, 95 mins)

The heyday of the action star is further in the rearview mirror every day, so much so that 2010's THE EXPENDABLES and its upcoming sequel come off as nostalgic trips to a bygone era instead of current action movies (especially the sequel, which will mark the first wide-release appearances of Chuck Norris and Jean Claude van Damme on the big screen in years).  Sure, we got a Bond and a Bourne movie every few years, but these days, action flicks are usually forgettable, CGI-heavy yawners with no sense of style or personality.  But here's Jason Statham, cranking out anywhere between two and four movies a year that aren't exactly blockbusters, but with their modest budgets, they rarely lose money.  Statham is very much the Last Action Hero who, depending on your point of view, either came along 20 years too late or is one of the only things keeping these old-school genre pictures alive.

A rare shot of Jason Statham
pointing a gun in a film
In the ridiculous and highly entertaining SAFE, Statham is Luke Wright, and Luke has fallen on hard times, to put it mildly.  An ex-cop who resorted to MMA cage fighting, Luke was supposed to throw a fight and didn't, which resulted in his wife and unborn child being murdered by Russian mobsters.  These same Russian mobsters are after Mei (Catherine Chan), a young Chinese girl and a mathematical genius gifted with instant memorization.  Mei knows a secret code given to her by powerful Triad boss Han Jiao (the great James Hong) and his flunky Quan Chang (Reggie Lee), that holds the key to a large sum of money.  Luke and Mei's paths cross on a NYC subway platform where he's about to end it all by jumping in front of a train and she's being pursued by the Russians, the Triads, and a squad of rogue cops, led by Wolf (Robert John Burke), who work for both organizations.  Luke saves her and the pursuit begins, with Luke playing all three sides, plus the corrupt mayor (Chris Sarandon) and his assistant/lover (Anson Mount) against the other, with a good chunk of Manhattan being shot up in the process.

Statham and Catherine Chan on the run
Writer-director Boaz Yakin, an occasional filmmaker (FRESH, REMEMBER THE TITANS) and veteran journeyman screenwriter (with credits ranging from Clint Eastwood's THE ROOKIE to PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME and even DIRTY DANCING: HAVANA NIGHTS), gives us a lot, and I mean a lot of exposition in the early going, but he does a very impressive job of economizing it.  Other films with as much backstory would've taken over an hour to go through what Yakin bulldozes past in about a third of the time.  SAFE packs a lot of plot into 95 minutes, and, as usual with Statham films, it gets pretty hard to swallow.  It's not enough for Statham's Luke to be an ex-cop:  he has to be a whistleblower ousted from the NYPD and forced to become a cage fighter, then he's a widower, homeless, suicidal, and part of a secret anti-terrorism task force that caused some bad blood between him and the mayor's assistant.  As ludicrous as it all is, it's a total blast until a rather weak wrap-up that feels like Yakin didn't know how to close it.  But it has a lot of great action scenes (choreographed by veteran stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski, most notably Keanu Reeves' stunt double on the MATRIX films) and some impressively outrageous, over-the-top violence, the likes of which make SAFE a distant relative to films like RUNNING SCARED (2006) and PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (2008) in terms of utterly repugnant characters and a complete disregard for human life and restraint in general.  It's the kind of movie where Quan Chang is ushering a bunch of people out of a hotel lobby and yells "Anyone stops moving gets killed...like this!" and blasts the poor bastard in front of him--who was moving, and quickly--just to illustrate his point, and you find yourself laughing at it.

Chan with James Hong as powerful Triad boss Han Jiao
In spite of some intermittently-utilized CGI and compositing, SAFE feels a lot like a NYC-set film of the 1970s or 1980s.  Not so much in style, but in tone.  A good chunk of it was actually shot in NYC (the rest in Philadelphia) and Mark Mothersbaugh's score sounds like a score used to sound. There's a lot of percussion and a lot of horns that, in a way, reminded me of some of David Shire's legendary TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE score back in 1974.  There's no trendy, flavor-of-the-month sound propelling the mayhem here.  It's an enjoyably silly, stupid movie, but it has grit and a personality to it that a lot of today's would-be action films are sorely lacking.  And when's the last time you saw guys like Chris Sarandon and James Hong getting prominent screen time in a major theatrical release?


  1. Great review. Totally agree, this was a solid Statham flick. Liked the old-school vibe, the fights and seeing Sarandon\Hong too.