If you don’t recognize the name of director Boaz Yakin, that’s because he’s spent his entire career making crap. He started off writing crap like the Dolph Lundgren Punisher (1989) movie, then moved on later to direct schmaltzy crap like Remember the Titans (2000) before coming around to egregiously stupid crap like Uptown Girls (2003). But finally, it seems as if Yakin has figured out the correct way to make watchable crap—make it a bit too ridiculous, make it a bit too violent, and have Jason Statham star in it.
This is what we get from Safe, which is every bit Yakin’s film, since he both wrote and directed it. Safe kicks off with an impressive bit of filmmaking, jumping backwards in time thrice, and skipping across continents in flashbacks that get the bulk of the set-up out of the way. It’s clever without being distracting, and cuts a ton of fat out of what eventually becomes a very paunchy storyline. Within a matter of minutes, we meet Mai (Catherine Chan), a young Chinese girl with a talent for memorizing numbers. She’s been kidnapped and taken to New York City by the Triads, who plan on turning her talent into a criminal goldmine. We’re also introduced to Luke Wright (Statham), a washed-up MMA fighter whose wife has been murdered by Russian gangsters for his refusal to throw a fight. And just to make things more absurdly hellish for Luke, these same Russians have promised to off anyone he befriends in the future.
That’s the set-up, with the plot being driven by the Chinese and Russian gangs fighting over Mai for a number she has locked in her memory, and the now homeless, down-and-out Luke meeting the girl and deciding to protect her. (In a sense, it becomes a vaguely Westernized version of Lone Wolf and Cub.) As the story moves forward, the film becomes increasingly confusing and grotesque in its complications. It’s a world where no one—besides Luke, of course—is to be trusted, and where the entire city of New York—from the cops up to the mayor—is corrupt. The film looks and feels like ‘70s tough-guy cop flicks like Dirty Harry. It’s a universe so ugly that even our hero was once caught up in its unprincipled ways, so the entirety of Luke’s motivation revolves around his redemption.
None of it is particularly heady or original, but Statham plays it mostly straight—with asides for a few hardass moments—and he has the acting ability needed in order to play up Luke’s obvious emotional turmoil, all the while never making it silly. Yeah, he’s in a lot of silly movies, but we often forget that Statham is really good in those silly movies. He single-handedly keeps Safe in one piece, even as it tries to cannibalize itself through increasingly complex plot twists, contrivances and the occasionally nigh-indecipherable action sequence.
Safe has more than its share of flaws, and it never manages to live up to the assured opening in terms of style. Thanks to a solid cast and a few fits of interesting filmmaking, however, it’s better—and more entertaining—than it has any right to be. Rated R for strong violence throughout, and for language.