Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Have a Safe Trip

It's ironic that the new action flick starring Jason Statham is called Safe, as we are shown through 94 minutes that for the sake of the story, nobody really is; not Statham's family, who are killed off in the film's opening sequence; not the army of baddies who soon become the targets of the deadpanning hero; not even the civilian extras who are inevitably drawn into the crossfire.

I tend to enjoy simple action films, a genre whose popularity spiked in the late eighties and early nineties with the influx of Hong Kong cinema stars like Jackie Chan and later Jet Li. Soon afterward, other countries started emulating that style of hard-hitting martial arts action into their films, the most notable probably being the French action piece The Transporter, which was the film that catapulted Statham to where he is now, kicking ass and taking names. I loved The Transporter , though it would be fair to say that product of Louis Leterrier and Luc Besson was likely Statham's most complex release to date. In recent years, Statham's titles have had the same ideas around them, most notably the actor as a one-man war machine, impervious to bullets, gravity, plot twists and general common sense. His 2011 efforts, The Mechanic and Killer Elite, were okay, but both lacked anything approaching an original concept. Really, the only difference I saw in Safe was that the actor was stripped of his big-name co-stars (Ben Foster in The Mechanic, Clive Owen and Robert De Niro in Killer Elite) in favor of young sidekick Catherine Chan. Still, getting the chance to see Statham knocking people's teeth in is too good a chance to pass up, and while I was waiting for The Avengers to arrive, it was good to take in a relatively simple action flick.

He keeps this look on his face through the whole thing.
When cage fighter Luke Wright (Statham) fails his effort to throw a rigged match, he is made an example of by the Russian Mafia, who murder his family and let him know that they will be watching him, killing any whom he befriends, before sending him packing into the world. Wandering the streets of New York City, Luke is tempted to end it all... that is, until he sees the same Russians who ruined his life stalking an 11-year-old Chinese girl (Chan), and intervenes to save her. It turns out she was conscripted by the Chinese Triads of New York City as a "counter", someone who could memorize numbers and figures. She has been taught a complex code that could tilt the balance of power in the city, and every major criminal organization is out to find her. Luke finds himself pitted against not only the Mafia and the Triads, but also a group of corrupt police, all looking for an edge in the coming war. Having lost his way, Luke finds something to fight for once again, and unleashes his full strength for the first time against everyone with evil intent in the city.

This won't end well...
Not surprisingly, the fights and action are quite good for a film of this quality. Despite not having made a crime film since 1994's Fresh, director Boaz Yakin shows that he can still create compelling action sequences. He DOES get a little too close to the action at times, obscuring the actual actions on the screen, but thankfully he doesn't do it to the point where we cannot make out anything important. Exciting scenarios include gunfights in an underground casino, a posh hotel, and roaring through the streets of New York. He also sets up scenes perfectly, so we know exactly the kind of situation we're witnessing before the bullets start flying. Don't get me wrong, there's not anything here that is nearly as compelling as any single scene in the Indonesian film The Raid: Redemption, but the work is still highly impressive for someone who has been out of the game for over a decade.

He's got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one.
It's a shame then that the story doesn't hold up to even distant scrutiny. I'm talking plot holes seen from the windows of an overhead 747 when I talk about how silly and without substance the story actually is. Ignore the fact that the fate of the city is held in the head of an 11-year-old child, I still can't get over the level of corruption strewn throughout the film, as dirty operators from three overt factions are seen blowing the crap out of objects and people for the entirety of the film's run. I'm sorry, but I don't believe that the Triads could storm a hotel, engage in a fierce firefight, and even kill a few civilians to escape, YET THERE ARE NO SIGNIFICANT CONSEQUENCES. Even taking corrupt cops into account, and even if the criminal organizations in the city pay a certain amount to keep their activities under the radar, there's simply no way those kinds of actions result in anything short of a full-blown crackdown on the syndicate. It's called "crossing the line" and Yakin (who also wrote the script) doesn't seem to know where that line is. This is a fictional version of New York, and would feel right at home in the pre-Giuliani days of mass crime, but that this film stretches the boundaries of believability so much is proof that Yakin should have brought others on board to make the whole thing seem more credible.

Jason Statham: killing ugly people since 1998.
True to the poor quality of the script, there's hardly a spoken word that you can hear without cringing. It's a good thing a chunk of the film is verbalized in (I think) Cantonese, as the Triad scenes provide a brief respite from wince-inducing dialogue. For the most part, the film at least casts in that vein, and just about everyone from Statham on down looks comfortable reciting what's on the page. You might even recognize many of the cast from other works, but Chris Sarandon, Robert John Burke, James Hong, Reggie Lee and Anson Mount hardly do anything to really make their characters distinct (it might be argued that Burke is the exception). The only person who really has to do any work is Catherine Chan, and that's because - let's face it - she's far overpowered even as a child sidekick. She has to narrate parts of the story, and her delivery is unconvincing and dry, though I admit I'm unsure whether that is lack of talent or just not realizing how hard it is to make a major motion picture. I feel bad ragging on a kid, but you can't gloss over the fact that she's easily the film's weak link.

Damn it feels good to be a gangsta.
Once again, we are presented with Jason Statham as the central (and only) reason to sit through a generic action film, in the hopes that something new and better will be coming down the path ahead. Safe is not a bad movie, but it doesn't even stack up to his lesser films from last year, and those only missed being among the worst of 2011 thanks to Statham's intangibles. Safe will likely be remembered in the same capacity (if at all), and you should only see this if you really can't wait for The Expendables 2 to come out in a few months. It's fine for a mindless action flick, but with so many better options out there right now, why would you settle?

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