It is a testament to the power of movies that they can sometimes raise important questions. In the case of Jason Statham’s latest film, Safe, that question is “Who gave this film permission to kick ass?!”
W.C. Fields always warned us not to work with animals or kids, but Jason Statham doesn’t play by the rules. He signed on for this escort mission of a movie and plays Luke Wright, a fighter who failed to throw a match, pissing off the Russian mafia. His wife is killed and Wright suffers a genuinely disturbing curse: rather than kill him, his enemies will watch his every move and murder anybody he talks to. That’s not an empty threat. They follow through, so it makes some sense that he’s about to throw himself in front of the train before the first act is through.
What stops him is a little girl, Mei (Catherine Chan), in trouble. She’s a mathematical genius who’s been kidnapped by the Triads to keep track of their operations, which, yes, is a bit of a stretch. But computer programs can be traced, after all, so this little Jenny Mnemonic is an invaluable resource to the likes of James Hong and Reggie Lee, who need her to remember a complex code that everyone, from the NYPD to that same d*ckish Russian mafia, would kill for. What’s it for? Oh, we find that out pretty quickly. That’s not the point. Safe is a typical MacGuffin-centric motion picture, only this time the MacGuffin is a character who just happens to mean something different to the protagonist than everyone else. It's still a familiar tale, but despite the obvious trap of including “the little girl who melts the curmudgeon’s heart,” Safe overcomes its formulaic concept and delivers the best damned film of Jason Statham’s career.
While splendidly acted, the characters don’t have much to talk about besides the plot, so that’s not what’s elevating the material here. Writer/director Boaz Yakin has a stellar eye for action choreography and coverage, leading to multiple sequences we’ve seen before, but portrayed in an entirely new way. And yet that’s not it either. Instead, Safe is that rare movie without a single pet peeve, which is nothing short of a wonder in picture as entrenched in genre trappings as this one. You know how in an action movie, the hero sometimes leaves a key villain alive early in the film, allowing for a final confrontation later? Jason Statham shoots him in the face, while he’s on the ground, beaten and unarmed. Late in the film he allies himself with his enemies out of sheer convenience. Oh don’t worry, he has a plan, but these incidental moments and many more besides are so full of refreshing creativity that it compensates for the main storyline’s hokeyness.
What I took away from Safe wasn’t an affirmation of a key moral principle, or an unforgettable character, but rather a sense of exhilaration that lingers days after the fact. They say that audiences don’t want to see anything new, they want to see the same old thing in an unexpected way. That’s Safe, a film that hits all the routine action beats we crave but manages to feel extemporaneous anyway. This is action filmmaking done right.