Safe is an all-too apropos title for a Jason Statham action yarn these days. Statham we should appreciate. He's our last working action star under the age of 60 -- meaning he's our last working action star not coursing with an absurd amount of human growth hormone or beating up the wolves that kidnapped his daughter.
Pure action films are an endangered species these days, overrun by an industry obsessed with adapting every board game and comic book that's available for a price. We should be grateful then that we still have Statham willing to gleefully and gruffly kick, punch and shoot his way through an assortment of bad guys merely for our enjoyment. That doesn't mean we're required to be all that happy about Safe, though.
In it, Statham plays Luke Wright, a cop turned cage fighter who runs afoul of Russian mobsters when he fails to take a dive in his latest fight. It's a failure that costs his wife her life; he is left alive with a grim warning from the mafiosos -- get close to anyone and we will take them from you. This seems particularly cruel, even for mobsters, and especially incompetent. Don't crime bosses hate loose ends? Isn't the buff and rough Wright -- now with nothing to lose -- the definition of dangerous?
Having mobsters act like mobsters would disturb the momentum of the film I suppose, and Wright's survival is a plot device that can't be trifled with by simple things like logic. Parallel to Wright's tragedy is that of a brilliant Chinese girl Mei (Catherine Chan), who, after displaying a savant-like talent with mathematics, is plucked from her sickly mother (whom we never actually see) and brought to New York City to keep track of a Chinese gangster's operations there. Han Jiao (James Hong) is the crimelord who shuttles her off to Manhattan because leveraging her mind keeps the paper trail to a minimum and Quan Chang (Reggie Lee) is the man who poses as her father in the Big Apple.
Luke and Mei's worlds collide when the Russian mobsters who have made the former's life a living hell target the latter because she has memorized a lengthy numerical code that is key to accessing a non-descript sizable sum of money. A confluence of events leave Mei in Luke's care as the pair try to stay one step ahead of the dueling gangs and the dirty cops -- some of whom Luke knows from his time as a police officer -- on their tails.
Considering that so many Statham movies have followed this sort of rough outline, Safe needed to do two things -- make the relationship between Statham and his sidekick (in this case Chan's Mei) convincing and have enough of those ridiculous can't-help-but-smile action sequences punctuated by one-liners to distract you from the banal, formulaic plot.
On the latter count, I think Safe was close to achieving its goal. There wasn't quite enough humor sprinkled throughout for me, but it had its moments, most notably when he puts a slug in one of his Russian tormentors on a crowded subway car and tells the onlookers, "Don't worry, he had it coming." Somehow, this calms down all the innocent bystanders because, well, why wouldn't it? This is a Jason Statham movie, after all.
On the former count, though, it was an unmitigated disaster. Chan is wooden and unbelievable as a child prodigy and the connection between Luke and Mei materializes out of nothing, at least that happens on-screen. There's never any real effort to explain why the vulnerable and scared Mei would trust Luke or why the hounded Luke feels so strongly for Mei that he would put her in danger by befriending her.
Safe is fine for what it is, but Statham has been far better. The good news is he's in a movie like this twice a year, so we won't have to wait long to see if he can do better the next time around.