I’ve not yet seen enough Statham movies to discern the particular mechanics by which he has acceded to action film superhero status — aside obviously from his competence at fight choreography — but comparing this film to the recent Homefront suggests that being a father figure to young, life-hardened but yet vulnerable girls is part of his persona. In Safe, for example, he has to protect Mei (Catherine Chan) from a triple threat of Chinese triads, Russian mafia and corrupt New York cops. The script, also by director Boaz Yakin, is hardly going to win any plaudits for its sensitive portrayal of New York’s criminal underbelly, but then the action film genre is hardly the place to do this. Instead, what the film has is plenty of taut, well-directed and well-staged action sequences — which at least puts it ahead of the aforementioned Homefront — and some small but touching hints at vulnerability on the part of Statham and his pre-adolescent charge.
Statham here portrays Luke, an ex-cop now reduced to violent cage fights, who finds his life turned upside-down when he botches one such fight that he was supposed to throw. Pretty soon his (unseen) pregnant wife is murdered and he’s on the run from a vengeful Russian mafia boss. Meanwhile, in a parallel story, young maths whiz Mei is kidnapped by triad boss Han Jiao (the venerable James Hong) to assist him in his criminal enterprises. She does a bit of, you know, mathematics and stuff, to prove her capability, but her chief function in the film is to remember a number which, it is implied, holds the key to all of Han Jiao’s not inconsiderable fortune — it’s not clear exactly how, or why, or… I mean… seriously, WHAT EVEN IS GOING ON with her special superpowers — but that’s beside the point. What’s important is that as a result of her knowledge, she now becomes the target of the aforementioned Russians, quickly joined by corrupt NYPD Captain Wolf (Robert John Burke), and when Mei escapes it brings her into contact with Luke, and etc. etc. you get the gist.
As I hope you can tell, it’s all really a bit silly just how this young girl can be the key to everyone’s fortunes, but she doesn’t really need to bear the weight of convincing us all of this tortuous plotting (since who could really believe it), meaning the youthful Chan does well with what she has to do. Statham, though, has to convince as a man down on his luck who finds meaning in protecting Mei, and this he does rather well. It’s a touching scene when the two meet, as Luke is at his lowest point, lurking on a subway platform contemplating suicide to escape the dark and despairing world he’s been drawn into. Beyond that, Burke (best known for playing oligarch Bart Bass in teen TV melodrama Gossip Girl) is effective as the oleaginously creepy Cpt Wolf, while James Hong brings gravitas to his bad guy as he always does.
Getting invested in all the twists and turns of the plot is not so much the point, as the way everything is put together. I was only previously familiar with director Boaz Yakin from his film Fresh (1994), a well-wrought coming-of-age-in-the-‘hoods story partly drawn from his own experience and which, it turns out, is a rather singular work in his otherwise fairly action-oriented filmography. What this means is that while he can effectively bring some serious dramatic pathos where required, he’s also got the chops to nimbly execute a good explosive action setpiece, of which there are plenty. Nothing here feels out of place or ridiculous, it’s a generic story told without condescension by a group of actors who are equal to the material. That can sometimes count for something.
Director/Writer Boaz Yakin בועז יכין; Cinematographer Stefan Czapsky; Starring Jason Statham, Catherine Chan, Robert John Burke, James Hong 吳漢章, Chris Sarandon; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 27 December 2013.