by Indy Datta
The new Jason Statham vehicle, written and directed by Boaz “Remember the Titans” Yakin, starts with not one but two solid premises. In one plot strand, we meet Statham’s character Luke Wright – a NYPD detective turned binman/cagefighter – who angers the boss of a Russian gang by failing to throw a fight. These Russians have a taste for drama, so rather than killing Luke, they kill his wife, and promise him that anyone else he gets close to will get the same treatment, condemning him to a life of itinerant solitude. Meanwhile, somewhere in China, the mathematical genius and eidetic memory of an 11 year old schoolgirl called Mei (newcomer Catherine Chan) catch the eye of New York City’s Chinese gangsters, who put her to work as the ultimate unhackable mob-accounting computer and Johnny-Mnemonic style data courier. In the early stages, as the film cuts restlessly back and forth between the two storylines before bringing them together, you might wonder if all this isn’t a bit overcomplicated for a Jason Statham movie – if it isn’t all going to rather get in the way of the simple business of lining up as many people as possible for The Stathe to kick in the head or shoot in the bollocks.
Fortunately, superfluous plot strands in Jason Statham movies sometimes dematerialize spontaneously (like his character’s blackouts in Blitz, which seem likely to be crucial to the story until the point where they are simply never mentioned again), and so it is here. A phalanx of corrupt cops is added to the Russian and Chinese gangster mix, and there’s some complicated flapdoodle about Mei having the key to the combinations to a couple of safes which hold different McGuffins, but you really don’t need to waste too much time worrying about any of that. What Safe boils down to in the end is: lots of bad guys mean harm to Luke and Mei, and therefore they won’t be safe until The Stathe has kicked and/or shot every one of those bad guys in the head and/or bollocks.
The main attraction is, as always, Statham himself, and even though he has bulked up alarmingly since the days of, say, The Transporter, to the point where he appears to have built considerable muscle mass on his scalp, he still looks more recognizably human than juice-fed geriatric grotesques like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, or Bruce Willis, the talking Pepperami (you’ll be able to make the comparison directly in The Expendables 2 – More Expendabler in which all four appear). Although the Statham brand has hitched its colours to the unreconstructed testosterone-overload school of action hero epitomized by the Three Throwbacks, as a clear alternative to the CGI-and-wheatgrass -smoothies fuelled Keanu/Jake/Tobey? generation that succeeded their original heyday, he doesn’t quite fit into either camp. Rather – I’d argue that the secret of Statham’s superstar status is that, at his best, he’s bought the fluidity and grace, and also the inventiveness and lightness of Asian martial arts flicks to an audience that simply wouldn’t buy tickets in large numbers to Chow Yun Fat or Jet Li films.
Yakin’s direction similarly takes its cue from the best of Hong Kong action cinema – which means that its impeccably composed widescreen images are cut lucidly to showcase John Valera’s fight choreography. But after you’ve seen one or two of Safe’s action setpieces (which, as we moved from carjacking to nightclub shootout, made me think of Grand Theft Auto 4 more than once: more in any event than it did the New York crime movies that inspired that video game), you’ve seen more or less all it’s got to give – and after a while the more fastidious filmgoer might start to tire of the way Luke never fails to land a punch or a kick, or misses a shot, even when punches, kicks and shots punctuate the action like a metronome running at 120 beats per minute (the relentlessly increasing bodycount also feels a bit much for a 15 certificate movie). The thought that Luke won’t win every fight without picking up a scratch simply never crosses the viewer’s mind. And although Chan is a pleasingly unsimpering presence, and various B-movie character actors give it their snarling all in the multiple villain roles, the film can’t quite get around the problem that Statham has to say lines (in, about 25% of the time, some kind of American accent).
Safe is on general release from Friday.