The de-evolution of the modern b-action movie is disheartening. The genre has been bisected by traditionalists and new-school practitioners. The old-school, red meat types like Sylvester Stallone and their ilk believe that real men doing real stunts and delivering brutal blows is the way to go, big tough guys in big tough situations, without any youngbloods or fancy gizmos. The more contemporary action filmmaker, however, spikes the punch, utilizing heavy-duty CGI to turn Tobey Maguire into Dolph Lundgren, Cameron Diaz into Jackie Chan. Neither side seems to understand that you don't need to be Dostoyevsky to infuse the same old tropes with just a little respect for characters, stories, suspense, and high stakes. It's the story, stupid. Believe in it.
Writer-director Boaz Yakin ("Remember The Titans") believes, which is why his latest picture, the old-school-baiting "Safe," knows exactly where that pleasure center lies. The finest of the generic output of action stud Jason Statham, "Safe" is a take-no-prisoners crowd-pleasing asskicker, one that invests its familiar mob war trappings with the forward momentum that can only be provided by a filmmaker smart about genre, and an attitude that makes no apologies for political correctness, MPAA determinations, or a lack of a modern sensibility — "Safe" could have been released by Cannon in 1990 and would have felt right at home. For being a "dopey action movie," "Safe" may be one of the most airtight, economical studio pictures of the year.
Statham plays Luke Wright, a former NYPD cop-turned-informant-turned-UFC-fighter (thus, muscles) who screws up the fix, putting an opponent in the hospital with one punch before the opportunity arises to take the fall. Having disgraced the badge and failed his organized crime compatriots, he returns home to find sleazy Russian skuzzballs have gotten to his wife first. It's not long before Luke hits the streets, now without a home, and unwelcomed by all his former employers.
Across the city, a Chinese mob led by Han Jiao (James Hong, still awesome) benefits greatly from a secret weapon — the steel trap math genius of young Mei. A young grade school girl now forced into serving organized crime, she is taken from business to business, crunching the numbers to keep the criminals from providing a paper trail. It's not enough that her new "foster father" and Han's right hand goon Quan Chang (Reggie Lee) openly murders people in front of her, but she's also something of a bargaining chip — the Russian mob also seeks this valuable walking resource.
When a kidnapping is botched, Mei hits the subways, where a despondent Luke seeks to end his life as a railway ink blot. Seeing this girl in major danger, and realizing he's Jason Statham: Man Of Iron Fists, he makes short work of these armed goons. It's the first extended brawl of the film, the action shot clearly and in a satisfying way, and it becomes an even more satisfying when Luke learns these are the same goons that murdered his wife. He absconds with the girl, thinking on the fly despite having no cash and no allies.
The trouble with a superman like Statham is that you find it hard to believe he'll ever be in trouble. Not only is he much more muscle-bound than his competition, but he's almost always more conventionally handsome and funny. The cherry on top of Statham's appeal as a movie star is that British working class accent that brings covert "class" to his Stallone-y quips. But once you're in the third act, there's never any doubt the star of the "Transporter" series is going to survive, and probably punch the skin off the bad guy's face. "Safe" is more of a chess match, however — we know Luke Wright is going to hand every bad guy their own ass in brutal combat, but once he finds Mei, he starts to realize, for the first time in his life, he's in a prime position to bargain. Once Luke realizes he's got the fanciest chip in the game, he lights up. Sure he could beat the devil out of everyone, but it would be even more pleasurable to watch them do it to each other.
Of course Luke finds himself in the middle of a massive conspiracy involving the Mayor (Chris Sarandon, where have you been?). "You've got some big balls on you," the Mayor tells Luke as he's in the process of gaming the system. "It's a miracle that I can even walk," Luke shoots back with a mixture of action hero swagger. Of course this is a high tension situation, and of course our hero is going to prevail. And maybe there's a bit of tepid predictability to Luke finding the "will to live" because of this young girl. "Safe" isn't exactly for those who grit their teeth at the mere mention of Steven Seagal.
But "Safe" is also packed with character. In a literal sense, the picture is well-cast and loaded with talented performers. Reggie Lee is especially good as Mei's legal guardian: displaying bad guy groove one moment, genuinely complex consideration the next, like when he struggles to explain to Mei exactly why he would have to put a bullet in her if she was under the threat of abduction. And one of the many groups Luke looks to manipulate are the NYC cops that hate his guts, cast with a group of unforgettably crusty character types led by a steely Robert John Burke. For all the tough guy-ness of mercenary badasses like "The Expendables," they're outdone by the crew in "Safe."
But in a figurative sense, "Safe" also pivots on the character of New York City, its chase sequences and fight scenes having a genuine sense of place. From the intersections to the subways to the ritzy hotel chains in midtown, the film makes use of the city's peculiar geography like no other action film in decades, perhaps since "The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three." Perhaps the cue comes from composer Mark Mothersbaugh, who contributes a retro David Shire-doing-James Bond theme that rings true with the tempo of the city, the attitude of the concrete jungle. It's a musical reminder that the b-action movie can be done right. [B+]
"Safe" opens on Friday, April 27th.