Safe: a wolf in homeless clothing

April 27, 2012

Safe
Grade:83
Cast: Jason Stratham, Catherine Chan, James Hong, Chris Sarandon Director: Boaz Yakin
Rating: R, for language and violence
Running time: 94 minutes

By Piers Marchant for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

It serves Jason Statham well, his diminutive physical stature. He’s not a giant Schwarzeneggerian action hero, he’s short and stocky; a bulldog, not a Doberman. He earns an audience’s sympathy by seeming so out-gunned, that is until he attacks – all whipping fists and thunderbolt feet – and then they cheer him for confounding their expectations.

In his action movies, he often plays the reluctant hero, the manwho just wants to get on with his life and not worry about anyone else, but in Boaz Yakin’s newrough-and-ready punch-’emup, we’ve perhaps never seen him so alienated and alone.

He plays Luke Wright, a low-level MMA-style fighter in New Jersey, partially allied with the Russian mafia, until he screws up a money fight and gets his wife killed as a result. The mob spares his life, but only to keep him on constant guard, indiscriminately killing anybody with whom he comes into any kind of social contact.

Wright’s also a former New York cop who was on an elite strike force of totally corrupt officers until he ran afoul of previous partners for not taking the bribe money. Bereft and (seemingly) helpless, Wright contemplates ending it all in a subway station, until he happens to spy a young Chinese girl, Mei (Catherine Chan), frantically trying to get away from a familiar band of Russian thugs.

Defending her, Wright regains his will to live, a service he turns out to be in great need of, under the circumstances. The girl, a math prodigy kidnapped from her native country and forced to work for a nefarious Chinese syndicate run by Han Jiao (James Hong), is on the run from her handlers, as well as the Russians and Wright’s former team of corrupt cops, because she has memorized an enormously long series of numbers that promise to somehow lead to a bank vault and fabulous riches.

As an action flick, it passes the simple beat-down test, moving frenetically from scene to scene, sometimes with a discombobulating editorial whoosh. Yakin, who showed he has a good touch with intellectually gifted youngsters in the critically acclaimed Fresh in 1994, keeps the frantic pace humming along, but manages to give Mei enough of her own presence to keep her from merely being another prop for Statham’s brand of bloody carnage. She’s gifted intellectually, but also cursed with understanding the cruel and senseless ways in which very wealthy evilminded men conduct their business, and has learned plenty of bitter lessons as a result (“I’m not a child!” she snaps, after Wright offers to take her hand and lead her to safety).

Statham’s character is a bit more of an enigma. Despite his pitiful stature when we first meet him, it turns out he’s a super-agent, able to wipe out dozens of men any which way, even offering standard-issue violent bon mots (“I never collected garbage,” he snarls at a Russian before popping him, “I disposed of it!”) along the way. A wolf in grubby, homeless clothing – the corrupt mayor at one point tells his underlings that Wright is so unstoppable there is only one man who could dare take him on oneon-one – it’s somewhat unclear why he’s allowed himself to be so downtrodden at the beginning. It’s no matter.By the time he stops slinking around in ragged woolen skull caps and spending his nights in homeless shelters and commences to beat the holy hell out of his various enemies, you will probably cease to ask so many questions about him.


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