There’s a weirdly wondrous moment at the beginning of Safe that’s probably one of the best visual approximations of ‘squeezing blood from a stone’ I can think of: Jason Statham, on his knees, crushed by the brutal murder of his wife and surrounded by taunting Russian heavies, looks straight on as the camera slowly closes in on his face and a drop of tear falls from his eye. It may be the most vulnerable bit of screen acting yet for the Brit action tough guy, whose roles over the years – The Transporter, The Mechanic, Crank, et al – have made no excuses about their interchangeability.
But while his ex-cage-fighter/cop Luke Wright goes through a fair range of emotional states early on, being suicidal, alone and homeless, Safe doesn’t quite mark Statham’s breakthrough into the Dramatic Thespian arena just yet. That’s a good thing though, otherwise we might not have the pleasure of watching him making quips about the size of his balls and leaving a string of smashed tracheas and bullet-ridden bodies across Manhattan as he tries to protect a mega-brained 11-year Chinese girl named Mei (Catherine Chan) from the Triads, the Russian mob and the cops.
Writer/director Boaz Yakin, who debuted with the gritty coming-of-age crime drama Fresh, and somewhere along the line detoured into fluff like Uptown Girls, relies too much on the swooshy hand-held ‘chaos cinema’ camerawork of recent vintage to generate mayhem, but the film also has a distinctly old-school Steven Seagal-circa-Out for Justice vibe that makes all that easier to tolerate. Unfortunately Yakin never builds on the Luke/Mei chemistry, separating them for a good deal of the film, thus diminishing our emotional engagement. The frantic energy also dissipates in the final third when the plot (initially a serviceable MacGuffin) thickens into a pretty boring and convoluted ‘revelation’ involving New York City’s powers that be. Still – great to see James Hong alive and kicking.